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Meyland: Leaky water policy will hurt LI

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Sarah Meyland is director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology.

In Oyster Bay earlier this year to talk about his 2011 book, "The Ripple Effect," Alex Prud'homme described how water will become the "defining resource of the 21st century."

Water use, he says in the book, sets off a "widening ripple effect that has consequences very few people understand," and he warns that we no longer have the luxury of "ignoring our impact on water supplies."

This year, we may see firsthand how fragile our supply is. Rainfall is 62 percent below normal. The soil is very dry, and having a raging forest fire in April is extraordinary. The luxury of ignoring water may not be an option this year.

Long Island experiences the three major water issues that Prud'homme identifies in his book: pollution, overuse and waste. Suffolk suffers from increased water pollution in part because of inadequate wastewater collection. Water pollution seeps ever deeper beneath Nassau as groundwater overpumping continues. In both counties, excessive summer use results in extravagant waste.

The hot, sunny weather of 2010 produced the largest pumpage of water from Long Island's aquifers in history. Last year was unusually wet, yet some water utilities pumped record amounts in July. Automatic lawn watering systems are the leading contributor to the 300 to 400 percent increase in summer use. Population growth and building practices also play a role in climbing demand. The ripple effect of wide water usage on quality and supplies is here, yet we have no water management agency to help us with it.

It takes time to adapt and implement reasonable water management -- which is why we should act now.

A coalition of environmental, civic, academic, good government and water professionals has met for the past five years to research how Long Island can secure effective, professional water management. Our proposal: to establish the same approach to water management that 70 percent of the rest of New York already enjoys. Professional managers would oversee the quality and quantity of the water in our aquifers, to ensure that our supply is sustainably used and protected far into the future.

Beyond Long Island, New York State relies primarily on surface water -- using the 76,000 lakes, rivers and reservoirs on the other side of Long Island Sound. Three river-basin management agencies, known as "compacts," manage those major supplies.

They are an excellent model for Long Island. Instead of organizing an agency based on river basins, however, we would organize ours according to where our water is stored: the aquifers beneath Nassau and Suffolk.

An aquifer management agency would protect and maintain the groundwater, our one source of drinking water. The agency's staff, with public input, would develop short- and long-term management plans, study groundwater supply, develop a comprehensive bicounty regional and sub-regional computer model to analyze parts of Long Island at risk from saltwater intrusion or pollution, and evaluate ways to improve aquifer protection. It would also define the sustainable amount of water that can be used without depleting streams or causing saltwater intrusion.

The cost for these services would be about equal to the price of one cup of premium coffee per person per year, based on annual pumpage, and could be added as a usage fee on water bills.

The last major saltwater intrusion studies were conducted 20 years ago. In March 2011, Nassau County budget problems led to the termination of monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey. While budget problems are real, failing to monitor water conditions is the ultimate penny-wise-and-pound-foolish approach, especially now that we're facing a drought.

A Long Island aquifer management agency would help solve problems affecting both counties, including sewage treatment, water waste, stormwater management and groundwater cleanup. It would take on the important task of disseminating information. Few people are aware that New York City is proposing to buy extra water from Nassau County utilities for times when it closes leaking upstate water tunnels for repairs. This is just one example of why Long Island needs a prepared, informed and professional agency to represent our interests.

Alex Prud'homme closes his book predicting that because most communities have not yet run out of water, they will continue to take it for granted through waste, contamination and mismanagement.

Let's make Long Island an exception.

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