Suffolk water agency courts Nassau village

Suffolk County Water Authority control center. Suffolk County Water Authority control center. Photo Credit: Sally Morrow

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Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

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It hasn't made headlines, but the Suffolk County Water Authority has held behind-the-scenes talks and made a formal proposal that ultimately could lead to the agency crossing into Nassau County for the first time in its 60-year history.

The authority, which delivers 61.5 billion gallons of water annually to 1.3 million Suffolk residents, gave a proposal to Farmingdale Village to run its water system on a 40-year lease. The plan would not only lower average annual water bills for the village's 2,400 homes -- from $424 a year to $304 -- but also permit an investment of $4 million into SCWA's waterworks.

Village officials have yet to decide on the authority's offer and also are talking to Bethpage Water District about a takeover. Should the village, after public hearings, decide to go with the authority, special Albany legislation would be needed next year along with the support of both counties' legislatures.

Though taking over a village water operation is a small step, some environmentalists see the potential for a gigantic leap toward dealing regionally with Long Island's fragile underground water supply.

"This is not good news, it's great news," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "The water authority should be offering water services to the Queens border. Right now, the aquifer is . . . dealt with in a hodgepodge fashion. It has to be managed regionally for our long-term sustainability."

While the Suffolk Water Authority was born of politics -- its first head in 1951 was then-Suffolk GOP chairman and state Sen. Kingsland Macy -- the $155-million-a-year agency, especially since reforms in the 1990s, has professionalized operations and become more activist.

In the past two decades, the SCWA has taken over nine private water systems and run five small water districts that were experiencing trouble meeting increasingly strict federal clean-water rules. The authority also won an $111 million lawsuit last year over contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE, and has been heavily involved in watershed preservation in the pine barrens.

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Nassau, by contrast, has 54 separate water agencies, both public and private. Some have rates significantly higher than Suffolk's and must deal with saltwater intrusion and state imposed caps on pumping.

But village or authority officials don't talk about any grand expansion. Patrick Halpin, a water authority board member, said there is precedent in a similar cross-border arrangement in Erie and Niagara counties.

"It can be easily managed by the water authority without additional personnel," he said. "The only thing that makes it an unusual request is that it is literally on the other side of the Nassau border."

Village Mayor George "Butch" Starkie said he reached out after the authority recently took over the East Farmingdale Water District in Suffolk. He called the authority's proposal a potential "win-win" for residents and "much better" than the Bethpage district's. Village costs are rising, he said, and the village's three wells may face a pollution threat in the future from underground plumes from the Oyster Bay landfill, and the Nassau fire training academy.

However, Sarah Meyland, director of New York Institute of Technology's Center for Water Resources Management, said there are many thorny issues that must be ironed out. For instance, will Suffolk's water be pumped across county lines and how would that affect the Nassau pumping caps?

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Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said, "There's nothing wrong with the Suffolk Water Authority helping out Farmingdale, but it should not include opening the door to supplying Suffolk water to Nassau without a whole lot of thought."

Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), chairman of the environmental conservation committee, called the concept a "very good one," although he warned of possible backlash from Nassau water agencies.

Karl Schweitzer, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference, which represents water suppliers in both counties, said the proposal is "difficult to assess" without details. "Bigger isn't always better," he said. "When you get big, you lose something."

Sweeney has called a hearing on Islandwide water issues for Sept. 27.

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