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How LI homebuyers can learn about their water quality

Public water suppliers must conduct annual water quality

Public water suppliers must conduct annual water quality reports for all kinds of contaminants and make those findings public. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Water has been on Jodie Larson's mind as long as she can remember.

Growing up in Baldwin, she was concerned about water quality because of her proximity to the Freeport sanitation facility.

As an adult living in Sea Cliff, she had a reverse osmosis filter system installed under her kitchen sink about six years ago and recently added a whole-house filter to clean even bathing water.

“I’ve always been conscious, but I got much more diligent about it,” she said.

Larson is among numerous Long Islanders concerned about water quality who choose to install their own filtration systems because they are uncertain about public water.

Larson didn’t want to use plastic water bottles or large water cooler jugs, like she sees delivered to neighboring houses, so she started filtering, seeing it as “something that I can control.”

“Why do I even have to compromise if I can get this purified water?”

Now, she has “100% peace of mind,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

Even without installing their own filtration systems, what can Long Islanders do to find out about their water quality?

A few things. But first, here's how the system works.

In Suffolk County, between 40,000 and 50,000 private wells bring drinking water to around 200,000 people, bypassing public water suppliers, with homeowners bearing no requirement to test their water even as state officials consider new regulations governing emerging contaminants.

In the rest of Suffolk, and in Nassau, while officials consider recommended maximum contaminant levels for three chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and 1,4-dioxane — public water suppliers must conduct annual water quality tests for all kinds of contaminants and make those findings public. Homeowners using private wells, almost exclusively on the East End, have no such requirement.

The water authorities want more homes to connect to public water. “At SCWA we are providing our customers with some of the best water in the nation,” said Suffolk County Water Authority chief executive officer Jeffrey W. Szabo.  “As more and more information continues to become available about emerging contaminants, one of the things health officials have recommended is that residents on private wells make the switch to constantly tested and treated public water, and we support that sentiment.”

Water providers are responsible for ensuring that "all water entering the public water distribution system meets or surpasses the strict water-quality standards set by federal, state and local regulators," said Richard Passariello, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference, which represents the Island's water providers. "Across Long Island, water providers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in preparation for regulations establishing maximum contaminant levels for 1,4-dioxane, PFOS and PFOA."

LI's three aquifers

Whether the home is connected to a private well or a public water supplier, such as the SCWA, the water comes from one of three Long Island aquifers.

“If you drive a private well on the East End, it’s the same formation as if you dig in Babylon,” said Sarah Meyland, veteran water expert and director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

However, the quality of the water may depend on the depth of the well, she said.

While a private well may be 100-300 feet deep, a public well may go 400-700 feet deep, she said.

“The deeper you go into the aquifer, the more likely you’re going to find high quality water," she said. "That water is older, it maybe has not been impacted yet by pollutants on the ground surface.”

All of Long Island’s water comes from the same source, but “not all water in the aquifer is of equal quality,” Meyland said.

While there’s no requirement that private well owners test their water, Meyland suggests a test once every year or two.

Homeowners can hire private water testing companies or request the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to test their water for a fee.

For most homeowners getting their drinking water from a public water supplier, annual reports, released at the end of every May, are made public. While they can be complicated to read, Suffolk County Water Authority, the Island’s largest water provider out of dozens of providers, has an easy-to-understand annual report with an online guide on how to read it.

Regardless of the well’s private or public status, real estate agents say more and more homebuyers are interested in the quality of their water.

“A lot of people look for filters and alkaline systems,” said Amar Prashad, a Realtor with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty in Greenvale. “I think more and more people have a concern over water . . . they buy bottled water.”

Janet Smiley, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, echoed Prashad’s experience with buyers.

Filtration systems a good sell

“I know they like to hear if there’s a filtration system on the house,” she said. “If a house has a filtration system, I always mention it.”

Prashad and Smiley said buyers usually don’t ask about the water supply.

“More importantly, they want to know what school district,” Smiley said.

Nora Conant, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate, works with many listings on the North Fork, some of which have private wells, and said water has never been high on the list of questions buyers ask.

“I have never had someone call me up and say, ‘I only want to look at houses with Suffolk County Water Authority’.”

Conant pointed out that SCWA adds new lines “all the time,” connecting houses to the system. With the exception of homes in remote areas, homeowners who want to connect to an existing water line can request to be connected and pay a tapping fee of $3,000.

Conant said she sees this “all the time,” and some homeowners have both, keeping the existing private well for irrigation and connecting to the public supply for drinking water.

Benefits in both

The broker sees benefits and downsides to both private and public water.

There’s no monthly water bill with a private well, but equipment could break and need to be replaced or repaired, a cost the homeowner bears.

“Pumps go, you’re responsible to fix it . . . On the other hand it can be years before you need to do anything,” Conant said.

Others prefer the convenience of a no-maintenance public connection, she said, like those coming from New York City who are familiar with public water, “so they like it, they never have to think about it, they just pay the bill.”

Meyland said she occasionally receives phone calls from people buying a house and seeking water advice. "Find out who the water supplier is for the community," she advises, "then read the annual report that the supplier has prepared to describe the quality and condition of their specific water.”

But many prefer to spend on a water system. Paul Trafas has been filtering Long Island’s water for 36 years and has seen a surge in people wanting filters. “This is a much more educated consumer base by far,” he said. “It’s a much more health-oriented society than it was 30 years ago.”

His Ronkonkoma-based Aqua Future provides water filtration treatment systems for homes. The cost, he says, can vary widely, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on the house. Trafas installs sink filters and whole-house filters, but finds it a conflict of interest to test people’s water for contaminants and then try to sell them a product.

He tests for hardness and chlorine, but for contaminant testing suggests homeowners use Suffolk County health services, a local private lab, or at-home test kits from National Testing Laboratories.

He also points people to the Water Quality Association as a good source of information.

When he gets a call from a potential client, he first educates them, including interpreting the test results they received from another company. He stresses the importance of changing filters regularly.

“You want consistently good water,” he said. “It’s not like you wait to change the oil in your car when the light goes on and you have no more oil in your car.”

Passariello of the Long Island Water Conference, in fact, cautions homeowners about filtration systems.  Speaking about 1,4-dioxane in particular, he said, "there is no home filtration system on the market that can remove this compound so we caution anyone being sold a system with a promise that it can. While home water filters can improve taste by removing chlorine, we caution against the added dangers if regular maintenance of their filtration system is not practiced. Without routine maintenance as recommended by the manufacturer, these filters can actually degrade water quality significantly."

Carol Meschkow of Plainview knows about maintaining a filtration system.

Meschkow recalls as a child watching her mother work for Jericho Water District.

“I have always had this interest in the water and I’ve understood about the standards,” she said.

Now president of Concerned Citizens of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Community, Meschkow installed a whole-house water filter when she and her husband bought their house almost three decades ago.

“We were very concerned about that and we put it in,” she said.

She said she hears more people talking about drinking water today than years ago, when people like her mother bought their houses on former potato fields where pesticides were used.

“We didn’t really know about that,” she said. Now, people can and should research how their property was used previously.

“I think a savvy homebuyer is not only important today ,but it’s important to the future,” she said. “What we do impacts the next generation.”

Where to find annual water reports

Some water testing/treatment companies on LI

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