New York City plans to study reopening dozens of long-dormant groundwater wells in southeastern Queens, and officials on Long Island are pushing back, saying it could damage the aquifers that serve residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties.
The city distributes about a billion gallons of surface water to more than 9 million New Yorkers every day using a complex network of reservoirs, lakes and aqueducts.
As part of what’s called an in-city water-supply resiliency plan, though, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection released a document last month outlining plans to modernize and rehabilitate its underground water supply system, which is permitted to pump 62 million gallons per day using 68 water supply wells in Queens.
Those wells tap aquifers connected to the water supplies that serve as the sole source of drinking water for the nearly 3 million residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Long Island officials say they are concerned restarting the former Jamaica Water Service wells, which have not been used since 2007, could cause saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies, and change the direction of groundwater contamination plumes.
The DEP’s permits to use the wells are set to expire this year and the city must file a renewal request with the state Department of Environmental Conservation by the end of November. The city has not yet done so, DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said.
If the permits lapse, the city would be eligible to apply for a new permit under certain criteria, the DEC said.
DEP spokesman Ted Timbers said the city had no plans to change operations at the wells.
“New York City has been a strong steward of the aquifer system under Brooklyn and Queens and, although we are not proposing any changes to the operation of the water system, we are seeking to renew our existing permit,” he said in a statement.
The DEC said the city is not required to conduct an environmental review as part of its permit renewal but is planning on doing one anyway. The agency also said a permit review will be thorough and no decision made until it had reviewed “information needed to reach a sufficient understanding of the impacts of the city’s water withdrawal activities on the overall groundwater system.”
Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) and Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) have filed twin bills that would require the city to get new permits, rather than renew existing ones. Exemptions for emergencies would be allowed.
“These are wells that have been dormant for years,” Phillips said. “No one knows what the impact would be on saltwater intrusion, or, worse yet, contamination, if they turn these wells on.”
The bills also would require DEC to hold off on a permit decision until the first phase of an ongoing groundwater modeling study is finished. That $6 million study was announced last year and kicked off in February. The U.S. Geological Survey, an independent agency, will develop a regional groundwater-flow model and sustainability assessment. The research area includes Queens.
Englebright and others said they don’t want to halt New York City from using the wells, they just want the science to ensure there won’t be harm to Long Island constituents.
“People of Long Island and the people of New York City should not be pitted against each other,” Englebright said. “There’s no emergency right now so we should wait. It’s called making use of science.”
Mindy Germaine, coordinator of the Western Nassau Aquifer Committee, also said the city should wait for the USGS results. “[The city is] relying on data that is old, insufficient and not comprehensive,” she said “The risks are so incredibly huge here.”
Others are even more forceful.
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) this week sent a letter to state DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos asking that the agency abandon and cap the city’s wells in the area permanently. “If this is not possible, then I insist the Department deny the renewals once the permits expire,” he wrote.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano also opposes the plan. “Any attempt by New York City to disrupt our aquifers should be stopped immediately as it could impact underground plumes, allow saltwater intrusion and flies in the face of all that Governor Cuomo, state and local leaders are doing to protect and cleanup Long Island’s water supply,” he said in a statement to Newsday.
Three years ago, a similar battle was waged when the city wanted authority to use 20 wells while repairing leaking sections of the Delaware Aqueduct, which brings water to the city from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains. The plan was halted after the city’s contractor was able to speed up repairs and public officials sought to block the move.
Have your Say
A public meeting about the environmental review will be held at 7 p.m. June 21 at the Theodore Roosevelt Legislative Building, 1550 Franklin Ave., Mineola, 11501.
Comments on the plan can be sent EISComments@dep.nyc.gov. The deadline is July 10.
The draft plan can be found at nyc.gov/dep/environmentalreviews.