A cryptic and nearly indecipherable network of rates and fees, set by largely unaccountable local water districts, is obscuring the true cost of water for Long Island homeowners, according to a new report to be released Tuesday.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based advocacy group, found that four dozen local water districts, spread across Nassau and Suffolk, charge widely different amounts to Long Island homeowners to water their lawn or take a shower.
“People get a water bill and there’s a number on it," said Adrienne Esposito, the group's executive director. "But no one knows what the number means.”
The report found that the cost of water on Long Island is largely dependent on who your provider is. Long Island has 48 water districts — 37 in Nassau and 11 in Suffolk. Water districts operate the piping and distribution system, conduct water tests and send reports to the State Health Department. Many water district commissioners are elected by voters.
Some water districts charge a flat rate, while others have a tiered system that charges customers based on usage. Many districts add capital costs onto a resident's tax bills, while others charge service fees, minimum-use fees or annual access fees. While most districts use conventional measurements, such as gallons of water, to bill their customers, others — such as Garden City — calculate their rates in cubic feet of water, making it nearly impossible for ratepayers to understand what they're paying for, Esposito said. A bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Kaminsky and signed into law last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would require water districts with 10,000 or more customers to specify their water usage in gallons by January 2020.
The result of the different charges in different districts: a bewildering system in which the residents of Old Brookville pay, on average, nearly 500 percent more than their neighbors in Jericho just five miles away.
“This is the most anti form of consumer billing we have in the state," Esposito said. "No one can understand it. And it defies logic unless you are intentionally hiding the cost.”
Roughly 1.2 million Suffolk residents, or about 80 percent of the county's population, obtain their water from the Suffolk County Water Authority at an average cost of $355 per year — among the cheaper amounts in the region, the report found.
A Long Island family of four, using about 10,000 gallons of water per month, pays an average of $414 annually for water, the group said. But Nassau residents bear a higher burden than their neighbors to the east, paying an average of $499 for water compared with $347 in Suffolk, the data show.
“This is really a tale of two counties," Esposito said. "Suffolk County has the water authority, where it is a more efficient and effective way to manage, as opposed to the multiple Nassau County fiefdoms.”
Michael Rich III, president of the Nassau Suffolk Water Commissioners’ Association, which represents 21 water districts, primarily in Nassau, said providers typically use engineering firms to evaluate their operating expenses and the cost of supplying and delivering water to residents.
"Each water district in the NSWCA has the authority to set rates within their districts and does so based on very specific criteria," Rich said in a statement. "Water rates don’t just happen in a vacuum."
He added that some of the differences in rate structures also could be linked to a water district's contamination and the techniques used to treat the contaminants.
The cheapest water on Long Island is found in Greenlawn, a small hamlet in the Town of Huntington, where residents pay, on average, $148 per year. Water districts in Jericho, Riverhead, Sands Point and Freeport round out the least expensive in the region, the report found.
New York American Water, the region's only remaining private water supplier, charges the highest price for water on Long Island, with customers on Nassau's North Shore, including Sea Cliff and Glen Head, paying $1,124 annually, the report found. The Merrick-based firm has three service areas in Nassau, with each ranking among the 10 most expensive, Citizens Campaign found. New York American Water customers in the Five Towns pay $936 per year, while residents in Merrick, Bellmore and Wantagh are charged just under $720, the report said.
David Denenberg, executive director of the watchdog group Long Island Clean Air Water and Soil, has been pushing for a public takeover of New York American Water. He contends that up to 80 percent of its water bills are either profit for the company or fees to offset property taxes. While municipal water authorities are exempt from paying property taxes, private water suppliers are not.
"It's outrageous and unconstitutional," said Denenberg, a former Democratic Nassau legislator from Merrick. "Why should New York American Water customers pay for property taxes that most residents get as a public service? It's the same water and the same aquifer."
Lee Mueller, a spokeswoman for New York American Water, said in a statement that the company is aware of the "inequity" of the tax system, which places a higher burden on its customers.
"We will continue to work with elected officials to right this wrong for the benefit of our customers," Mueller said. "Furthermore, we would caution against comparing rates between public and private water systems, as there are significant differences between the two in terms of taxes, rate structures and investments. New York American Water makes significant investments in our infrastructure to ensure the sustainability of our systems and to deliver high-quality water to our customers that meets all regulations, including pending regulations regarding emerging contaminants."
The report found eight Long Island providers provide little to no water at all — purchasing their water from neighboring districts and selling it back to customers with higher fees. More than a dozen other districts serve populations of less than 10,000.
The East Williston Water District buys water for its 2,500 customers from the Williston Park Water District, which has triple the population but pays $200 less for water annually, the report said. The Village of Plandome, which serves 1,350 customers, buys water from the Manhasset-Lakeville Water District, which has 45,000 ratepayers. Plandome residents, however, pay $680 annually for water compared with $420 in Manhasset-Lakeville, the report said.
East Williston and Plandome officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The report suggests consolidating dozens of water districts, establishing a uniform rate structure with clearly identifiable tiers and creating more incentives to promote conservation.
"When we go into the grocery store and pick our fruits and vegetables, we know how much it costs. There’s all sorts of laws governing that," Esposito said. "The consumer has to know the price. But we don’t have that for water."
LEAST-EXPENSIVE WATER DISTRICTS (annual estimates)
Greenlawn Water District: $148
Jericho Water District: $195.89
Riverhead Water District: $224.92
Village of Sands Point: $234
Freeport Village: $249.60
Town of Hempstead Department of Water (Lido Point Lookout): $264.98
City of Glen Cove: $283.20
Village of Bayville: $295.80
Village of Mineola: $297.40
South Huntington Water District: $315.78
MOST EXPENSIVE WATER DISTRICTS
New York American Water Service Area 2 (North Shore-Sea Cliff): $1,124.52
Town of Shelter Island/West Neck Water District: $1,090
New York American Water Service Area 1: $936.12
East Williston Water District: $814.80
City of Long Beach: $765.78
New York American Water Service Area 2 (Merrick): $719.28
Village of Plandome: $680.40
Albertson Water District: $658.05
Locust Valley Water District (Inside the district): $638.98
Water Authority of Western Nassau County: $617.36
SOURCE: Citizens Campaign for the Environment