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Southold Town's excessive water consumption a threat to its aquifer supply, study concludes

A separate report from 2011 warns the freshwater aquifer level could drop by 40 feet in 2030, when peak water use is projected to reach up to 1.7 billion gallons annually.

A sod farm in the Town of Southold

A sod farm in the Town of Southold getting irrigated in July. Conservation officials have cited irrigation as a factor in the town's increased consumption. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Water in Southold — a town of sprawling farms, wineries and homes with large irrigated yards — is being consumed at levels that threaten the town's reliance on its freshwater aquifer supply, according to a new study from a town committee.

Between September 2015 and August 2016 — when a total of 1.17 billion gallons of water was distributed to Southold residents and businesses — the Suffolk County Water Authority’s monthly data for the town showed water being drawn from the aquifer at much higher levels than recommended in a baseline report from the federal government, peaking at almost 197 million gallons in July 2016.

If consumption continues at its current pace, water advocates said potential long-term consequences include saltwater intrusion into the aquifer, which could lead to water shortages, higher water costs for residents and the need to take water from more distant, out-of-town aquifers. 

Concerns over increasing water consumption have grown across Long Island's East End.

A June 27 notice from the Hampton Bays Water District stated residents had seen “abnormalities,” such as discolored tap water in their household. The change was attributed to increased demands on the hamlet’s water distribution system. In Riverhead, officials issued a water conservation notice on July 5 asking residents and businesses to conserve water by minimizing or changing sprinkler use. Lawn irrigation increased Riverhead’s summer water usage by as much as 80 percent, officials said.

According to 10 years of water usage figures from the Suffolk County Water Authority, beginning in 2008, Southold’s water use over that time peaked in 2015, when 1.2 billion gallons were delivered to residents and businesses townwide. Southold’s water use declined to 1.1 billion gallons in 2017 — the latest figure available — but has remained at more than 1 billion gallons pumped since 2012. The town pumped between 815 million and 1 billion gallons from 2008 to 2011.

Water Authority officials and the town's Water Conservation Committee attributed the increase to lawn watering and irrigation.

“If we have a long, hot summer, people tend to irrigate more, and as dry periods go on, over the period of several weeks, if it doesn’t rain people tend to use more and more water,” said Water Authority spokesman Tim Motz . 

The water use data is part of a yearlong, $20,000 study by the town's Water Conservation Committee. Glynis Berry, who conducted the study and is also executive director of Peconic Green Growth, a Riverhead-based environmental advocacy group, said the water use concern is “much more severe than I ever expected.”

In 1964, a report by the U.S. Interior Department recommended that Southold’s annual water usage from the aquifer be kept to below 30 percent of the recharge on the Southold peninsula at the time — or 2.4 million annual gallons — to minimize water storage demand and prevent saltwater intrusion on the town’s water supply. Recharge describes the primary method by which water enters an aquifer. 

Berry said she had looked at several, more recent, studies and that she relied on the federal government's decades-old data because it was the most comprehensive and was the only study that included a specific recommended water use figure. The figures in that study are the baseline used to quantify Southold's usage levels.

"I had no idea we were pumping so much more than is recommended to maintain a sustainable water supply,” Berry said.

In 2030, Southold’s peak water use is projected to reach as much as 1.7 billion gallons annually and lower the aquifer by 40 feet, according to projections cited in a 2011 report by Boston-based engineering and construction firm CDM Smith. That level of use would increase the likelihood of saltwater intrusion, which decreases freshwater storage in aquifers and can degrade water quality for drinking or agricultural use.

The future of North Fork water usage has been a concern for more than 50 years. Water Authority officials said they have spoken this summer with representatives at Peconic Landing — the 144-acre Greenport retirement community that the authority listed as the No.1 water consumer in Southold — and had reached out to the town's top 100 water users to assess their usage and discuss ways to cut it back.

Officials at Peconic Landing said among the water-saving mechanisms in use are rain sensors to irrigate certain areas, drought-resistant flowers and shrubs on nearly 90 percent of newly landscaped areas, and incorporating native plants in other areas.

"We work very closely with the Suffolk County Water Authority, as it holds a one-acre easement with a well and monitoring station on our campus,” Robert J. Syron, Peconic Landing's president and CEO, said Friday in a statement. “They reached out to us last week for a meeting to discuss our water-saving initiatives, and we look forward to learning about new options for the future."

The town's Water Conservation Committee is considering funding new studies and calling for local efforts aimed at curbing demand and controlling water pumping, including tiered water conservation pricing to discourage excessive water users, requiring meters on all wells and making EPA water-conserving fixtures mandatory for new construction and renovations. 

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said in July that the town had not formally discussed how local farmers and agricultural businesses would be incorporated into water conservation efforts. He did say that farmers and agricultural businesses like wineries might not have as many options for saving water due to the nature of their business and added that public outreach to such businesses and residents would be the town's first step in water conservation before they consider other options.

“Residential property owners have the ability to be more flexible because of small changes in terms of what time of day you water the lawn and other things,” Russell said. “Farmers growing crops probably don’t have as much flexibility, but my experience in dealing with them, I’ve found that they’re always receptive to discussion and how to handle things in the way they operate.” 

He left open the possibility that the town could eventually pass legislation regarding water usage.

WATER WOES

Total production, in millions of gallons, of water usage in Southold from 2008-2017

2017 / 1,103,500

2016 / 1,179,800

2015 / 1,223,200

2014 / 1,053,500

2013 / 1,070,532

2012 / 1,066,200

2011 / 943,300

2010 / 1,027,654

2009 / 815,079

2008 / 870,363

Source: Suffolk County Water Authority

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