Editorial: Get answers before letting NYC tap wells

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is launching

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is launching an investigation to find the source of the refrigerant contaminating a drinking-water well in Roslyn Estates, pictured here on April 3, 2014. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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Headlines of water border wars are worrisome: New York City wants to start pumping millions of gallons of water daily from the aquifers that supply Long Island. There is ample reason for concern. The aquifers under the Island are our sole source of drinking water. And the last time the city vigorously pumped that water it had serious effects on the aquifer. But before we engage in a Wild West-style water war, we need to let science speak.

The city's plan poses a lot of questions, all of which must be answered before it can be put into action. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which has jurisdiction, must carefully vet the plan and protect the interests of both Long Island and the city. Water is a public resource and its use is a regional issue. As much as we'd like to say it's our water, it lies under geographic Long Island, not the municipal version. We need to be protective, but not parochial.

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The issue arises because the city must repair leaks in its upstate aqueducts. So it's seeking to reopen dozens of shuttered Queens wells -- some closed as long as 20 years -- to pump 35 million gallons per day. The repair project, estimated to begin in 2021, could last 10 months. The city has permits for the wells but they expire in 2017; getting them renewed means doing a new environmental-impact statement for DEC review.

Among the issues that must be analyzed: Although Suffolk County is not expected to be affected, will reopening the wells create a water deficit for Nassau? Will it lower the water table significantly, as happened in some areas when the wells were working? Will it increase saltwater intrusion, already a problem on the North and South shores? Will it cause a shift in the movement of Nassau's many underground plumes of contamination? Will the wells be open only for the repair project's duration, or is the city seeking a longer drawdown?

The city will need more water for those 10 months. No one questions that. But the taking of it must not be to Long Island's detriment.


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