New York City wants to renew a state permit that would allow it to tap long-closed groundwater wells in southeastern Queens as a backup to its aqueduct system, but the move has Nassau and Suffolk officials worried it could disrupt water supplies to Long Island.
If approved without changes by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the 10-year permit would allow the city to access 68 wells and draw up to 62 million gallons daily to help serve its 9 million customers.
“Rehabilitating the Queens groundwater system would improve the resiliency of the city’s overall water supply systems by making the groundwater system accessible in response to a water supply shortage,” the city Department of Environmental Protection said in an environmental impact study about the plan.
The request, though, is not welcome in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where officials worry it will threaten aquifers that are the sole source of drinking water for nearly 3 million people. Saltwater intrusion and the possibility that contaminants in the groundwater could be shifted because of new pumping are among the concerns.
“We’re very wary of this plan,” said Brian Schneider, Nassau County’s assistant to the deputy commissioner of public works. “It is our belief that there is not enough useful current information on a number of water resource issues.”
The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection, or LICAP — comprising representatives from both counties — opposes the renewal, as does the City of Long Beach, where pumping could increase the threat of salt water intruding into freshwater supplies relied upon by the barrier island city.
“This is a sole source aquifer,” Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman said. “There’s no public good achieved by putting that at risk.”
New York City filed for the permit renewal at the end of November and it is now under review by the DEC. During the review period the current permit is considered extended under state law, DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said.
There is no deadline for when the review must be completed.
The wells in question are located at 44 stations in a roughly 20-square-mile area of southeastern Queens, and from 1887 to 1996 were part of the Jamaica Water System, which at its peak pumped 100 million gallons per day. The city bought the Queens wells in 1996 and stopped using them, save for groundwater testing, in 2007.
At a LICAP meeting earlier this month, officials with NYC DEP said the permit renewal was part of an overall plan to have access to water supplies during drought or service outages. In normal conditions the city uses a complex system of aqueducts and tunnels to transport surface water from elsewhere in the state to serve its customers.
“Unless we had a system outage we would not utilize that groundwater system,” said Mark Page Jr., a managing director at DEP.
An environmental impact study conducted by the city evaluated several scenarios, from using 68 million gallons per day for one year up to using roughly 62 million gallons per day for 10 years.
The analysis, which was not required as part of the permit renewal, found no significant adverse impacts but did acknowledge the water supplies relied upon by Long Beach and other South Shore districts would be less likely to rebound and supplies could commingle with salt water. It added, though, that Long Beach supply wells, which already draw water from the deepest aquifer because other supplies are showing salt water contamination, would already likely be affected “without the proposed project.”
The Western Nassau County Aquifer Committee wants the permit request to be temporarily suspended until data from a $6 million Long Island Sustainability Study have usable results, which are expected in about a year. The study, ordered by the governor and overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey, will include Queens in its modeling of groundwater supplies and threats.
“The permit should be held in abeyance,” said Mindy Germaine, coordinator of the Western Nassau committee and a steering committee member of the Long Island Sustainability Study. “This is our only source of drinking water. We don’t have a plan B.”
DEP spokesman Ted Timbers said that while the city has the staff and budget to maintain and test the so-called Jamaica wells, it lacks the funds to treat the water to remove contaminants, which would be necessary before releasing the water into the distribution system.
“New York City will continue to collaborate with our regional partners to advance the interests of all stakeholders while we actively seek the routine renewal of our existing permit,” he said in a statement.
City officials said they relied on models and data from 1906 to 2015 but opponents say there are still holes, such as where the saltwater and freshwater supplies meet.
“We are simply asking the DEC not to act,” Schneider said. “From our position there is just too much at stake from a Nassau County water-resources standpoint to go forward without collecting all the necessary information.”