Faced with salt water seeping into private drinking wells near the shore, the Shelter Island Town Board a decade ago banned the installation of new underground sprinklers anywhere on the island and gave homeowners 10 years to use existing systems before they had to be turned off for good.
But with the Sept. 1 deadline approaching, the town board voted Friday to let people use their sprinklers until May 1, 2014, while it tries to determine if timers and other technology have made lawn sprinkling less of a threat to dozens of families town officials say have saltwater problems with their wells.
The sprinkler issue came to a head Friday as people packed the small Shelter Island Town Hall for a public hearing on a moratorium that would put off the ban for eight months. Judging by the applause, most people favored the extension, arguing there is no proof that sprinklers cause a serious problem.
"The issue is delaying implementation while you look at the science," said town resident Herb Stern. "If there's a real emergency, you can always shut them down. If there's a real danger to the community, I want them off." But, he quickly added, no hydrologist has yet determined how much of a problem is actually caused by sprinklers.
Shelter Island has its own relatively shallow source of drinking water, which the town already takes steps to protect. Swimming pools, for example, can only be filled with water trucked in from off the island.
About 120 sprinkler systems are in use on Shelter Island, and -- even under the impending ban -- they could still only irrigate newly seeded lawns for 90 days and only between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. Vegetables and flower gardens could only be watered for 20 minutes between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. Some people with vacation homes have complained that without using sprinklers, they had no way to water their lawn during the week.
There have even been suggestions of doing what was previously dismissed -- bringing in public water and burying an expensive system of water lines throughout the area where about 90 percent of the families have private wells.
It's a change the Suffolk County Water Authority has patiently awaited for decades. The SCWA installed a 16-inch water main reaching to North Haven in the mid-1990s and has a major well field near Southampton Village.
The Shelter Island Town Board discussed the issue yesterday at its work session, including creating a committee to look at the problem and to hire an outside hydrologist.
Supervisor James Dougherty said bringing in public water, which could cost millions of dollars, would meet the same kind of opposition and raise the same fears the proposal faced in the past. "They [the water authority] have been knocking on our door since I arrived here," he said.