Faced with a heat wave, little heavy rain and residents keen to keep lawns lush with generous watering, Long Island water suppliers are exhorting customers to curb use as they struggle to meet demand.
In recent days, several of the Island's more than 50 water districts - public, independent and private alike - have advised against nonessential use such as lawn-watering and car washing. Others have used stronger language, issuing "mandatory" curbs while not detailing how the restrictions will be enforced.
Behind the different choice of words is a shared problem: While there is plenty of water in the aquifer that serves Long Islanders, the systems that deliver it are badly stressed, particularly by aggressive lawn-watering.
"All of the public water suppliers are having difficulty keeping up with demand," said Dennis Kelleher, public relations chairman for the Long Island Water Conference, which includes representatives from the region's major water suppliers, public and private.
A heavy rain would remedy things, he said, because residents would water less and systems could recover. The Island is operating at a precipitation deficit, according to the National Weather Service: Rainfall in June was below normal, only trace amounts have fallen since June 22, and no significant rainfall is forecast before Saturday night.
In the past, drought conditions and high demand have led to calls for limits on use. But Kelleher, a senior vice president of H2M Group, consulting engineers for more than 20 public water suppliers on the Island, said he's been in the business 25 years and has never seen demand take such a toll.
Long Island American Water, a private company that serves 75,000 customers in southwestern Nassau County, Tuesday issued a restriction on nonessential outdoor water use until further notice. An American Water spokeswoman said no similar step had been taken during her 19 years with the company.
American Water president Bill Varley said on a normal summer day, his system will pump between 35 million and 40 million gallons. In recent weeks, he said, the system has consistently been asked to handle 50 million gallons a day or more, demand unlike any he has seen in a decade with the company.
"People are just watering," Varley said. "It's a constant irrigation mode. We just can't keep up."
The Suffolk County Water Authority, which has 1.2 million customers, pumps 350 million gallons on an average summer day, spokesman Paddy South said. Every day since June 30, he said, the system has pumped more than 400 million gallons.
In western Suffolk, supply is meeting demand, but on the East End the situation is acute, driven by landscaping and lawn-watering, South said.
The water authority has asked residents to stop nonessential use of water, and like other suppliers has warned that adequate pressure and supply are needed to meet public safety needs, such as fighting fires.
In Nassau, the Town of Hempstead Department of Water Tuesday extended a restriction on nonessential use in all six of its water districts: Point Lookout-Lido, Uniondale, East Meadow, Levittown, Roosevelt Field and Bowling Green Estates. That affects more than 36,000 customers.
Kelleher estimates that 75 percent of the water used is being put on lawns. The highest demand is overnight, he said, when automatic sprinklers turn on.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean M. Walter said his district had been doing fine until Monday night, when two of five reservoir tanks were tapped dry. Such an event is unheard-of, he said, and the only place the water could have gone overnight was onto lawns.
Walter said he did not know exactly what fines could attach to the mandatory ban on lawn-watering issued Tuesday in the district, but described the restriction this way: "Mandatory is if we come and tell you to shut it off, you're going to shut it off."
Residents, he said, should realize that a brown lawn is not a dead one.
"Your lawn will come back," Walter said. "If it gets brown over the summer, it will come back when the rains come. So please stop watering like crazy."
With John Valenti and Matthew Coleman