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Editorial: Create a watchdog to protecting our aquifer

Rich Kniff of Suffolk County Water Authority opens

Rich Kniff of Suffolk County Water Authority opens a hydrant in the Summerfield community to test the pressure of water flow in case of fire in Holtsville, NY. Credit: Joel Cairo, 2009

We walk on water every day on Long Island. The water we use to drink, to bathe, to grow our lawns, to irrigate our farms, all comes from beneath our feet. We live on top of a vast sole-source aquifer, and protecting its purity and its availability must be a top priority for our region.

But whose job is that?

The Island's roughly 50 water suppliers can't do a lot to protect the water in our multilayered aquifer. Their job is to find it, pump it, filter it if necessary, and deliver it. They can issue water conservation alerts at times -- such as the peak summer months -- when people use a lot more water and may endanger the pressure needed for firefighting. But their job is to sell water, not to persuade people not to use it.

The Suffolk County Water Authority, the Island's largest water utility, monitors land-use decisions that might endanger its wells, and makes recommendations to those who control zoning. But it's not responsible for the whole aquifer. The authority is one member of the Long Island Water Conference, whose members meet fairly regularly, but are in no real sense a legislative body responsible for the aquifer. What we need is a Nassau-Suffolk entity that can take that responsibility on.

Now, the Suffolk County Water Authority is proposing to create something that would fill the void: the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection. It's not a costly new bureaucracy, the authority promises -- and backs up that promise by volunteering to do staff work for the commission.

Rather, it would pull together representatives of the providers, along with technical experts, such as the U.S. Geological Survey. The 11 voting members would meet quarterly, build on existing studies, watch trends, create a State of the Aquifer report and update it annually, and draw up a regional comprehensive water plan.

This resource is so precious, so endangered by pollutants, so crucial to our future, that establishing a regional entity to watch over it makes excellent sense. Once the bills are introduced, both county legislatures should act to bring this commission into being.