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New York City shelves reopening of Queens wells that share water with Nassau County

In this Friday, Jan. 9, 2015 photo, workers

In this Friday, Jan. 9, 2015 photo, workers stand in Shaft 6B in Wappinger, N.Y. Crews starting a project to fix a section of the Delaware Aqueduct that provides New York City with about half its drinking water are busy blasting and drilling hundreds of feet below ground. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

New York City has shelved its plan to reopen nearly two dozen Queens wells that dip into the aquifer system shared with Long Island -- a move that relieved local policymakers and environmentalists concerned the pumping would have harmed Nassau's access to its sole source of water.

But the city still plans to seek a permit renewal, which would allow it to reopen the wells later.

In a May 7 letter to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, the city's environmental protection commissioner, Emily Lloyd, said New York had decided against using the wells to supplement its water supply while repairing leaks in its upstate aqueduct system.

The city "no longer plans to reactivate the Queens groundwater wells to augment our drinking water supply during the Delaware Aqueduct repair," Lloyd wrote, explaining the low bidder on the city's tunnel contract estimated a shorter tunnel shutdown than expected.

The city had been pursuing reopening 23 of its 68 wells in southeastern Queens -- the last of which was in use in 2007 -- as part of its $1.5 billion Water for the Future project.

The wells would have provided the city with 33 million gallons a day from the aquifer system that lies under geographic Long Island, which includes Brooklyn and Queens, along with Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The plan had raised an outcry from Long Island policymakers and environmentalists, who were worried the pumping would have drawn down the water table, shifted plumes of contamination and increased saltwater intrusion on the coasts.

Of particular concern was the city's plan to reopen four wells sunk into the Lloyd aquifer -- the oldest, deepest and least contaminated in Long Island's aquifer system.

Several of Nassau's coastal communities, such as Long Beach, rely on the Lloyd for water because of saltwater intrusion in the upper aquifer system in those areas.

"It is absolutely a victory," said state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who in March introduced legislation to declare the city's wells abandoned and unable to be reopened without more study. "Certainly, I think we'd be in a much different place right now if we hadn't engaged."

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee, said the decision was "good news for Long Island."

He pointed to Martins' bill as a turning point in the conversation.

"I'm sure that his introduction of that bill was sufficient to bring the commissioner really into the conversation in a way that probably wouldn't have otherwise happened," Englebright said.

Nassau's legislature voted last year to revive its Water Resources Board to monitor the city's plan. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said the county executive brought up his concerns about the Queens wells during an April 17 meeting with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mangano "applauds the mayor's decision to not reopen the wells," Nevin said in a statement, adding that the move "goes a long way in protecting our drinking water."

Nassau and Suffolk counties are federally designated sole-source aquifers, meaning the Island's nearly 3 million residents rely completely on groundwater for their water supply. Pumping in Queens would have affected Nassau, but not Suffolk, due to the way water flows underground in the area.

Although the city won't move to reopen the wells now, Lloyd wrote her agency "still plans to pursue a permit renewal" from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for the Queens wells when its permit expires in 2017.

"We believe it is critical that we maintain access to this water supply in the event of a surface water drought, unplanned outage of our conveyance infrastructure, or a similar emergency," she said in the letter.

The city planned to conduct an environmental review process that would "assess whether reactivating the wells will have significant effects" on the aquifer system, she wrote.

It was unclear whether that study would include effects outside the city's borders. Lloyd's department did not make a representative available for comment.

But state DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in an April 7 letter to Martins that his agency will base its decision on whether to renew the city's well permit partly on that study's findings.

"DEC will be actively engaged in the scoping of the content and detail of that study to ensure its breadth and depth are adequate for responsible decision-making," Martens wrote.

Sarah Meyland, director of the Center for Water Resources Management at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, said she was "delighted" about the city's decision to keep the wells closed for now, but cautioned that Long Island still needed to keep an eye on the environmental review process.

"We don't really know the scope of what they're going to study," she said. "The devil is in the details, and we need to see what the details really are."

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