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Our approach to water is all wrong

Marina owner Mitzi Richards carries her granddaughter as

Marina owner Mitzi Richards carries her granddaughter as they walk on their boat dock at the dried up lake bed of Huntington Lake which is at only 30 percent capacity as a severe drought continues to affect California on September 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / AFP / Mark Ralston

For decades, California has worked to transform its natural desert landscape into an oasis for major cities, agriculture and industry. Yet this transformation created an unsustainable human landscape that is now vulnerable to the drought conditions it is experiencing.

The state is one of the most plumbed places in the world. Pipelines and aqueducts bring water from hundreds of miles away to thirsty desert cities like Los Angeles.

Water managers did not anticipate the weakness of their scheme. Today, more than 25 million people live in Southern California -- all at the expense of communities and wetter ecosystems in the mountains to the north and west. Gov. Jerry Brown's water restrictions announced Wednesday should sound the alarm across the country about the need for comprehensive water management plans.

How do we manage water resources on Long Island? Most of Suffolk County is served by a single water authority, but in Nassau County, there are about 40 water management organizations. Each one is responsible for delivering drinking water to communities. While there is some coordination and cooperation, we do not have a coordinated approach to managing water. We all share one aquifer, but we have more than 40 straws dipping into the same glass.

The lack of coordination in water management is problematic for effective long-term planning of our shared aquifer. This is highlighted by the challenges brought about by New York City's interest in reopening wells on the Island that could affect regional water quantity and quality.

There are two examples of how regional aquifer systems are managed around the country that stand in stark contrast to California's maze of pipes and aqueducts and Long Island's hodgepodge of local water management districts.

The first is the Edwards Aquifer Authority in Texas. This organization formed when it was found that the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to the fast-growing areas of San Antonio and Austin, was unable to meet demand. Texas, in establishing the authority, gave it the power to manage, conserve and protect the aquifer while also preventing aquifer pollution.

Managing, conserving and protecting the aquifer here on Long Island are the responsibility of individual water authorities. Is it better for each local authority to be responsible for these actions, or could a more coordinated plan be put in place to protect the only source of groundwater in our region?

The second example is from the Tampa Bay, Florida, area, which was the site of notorious water wars in the early 1990s that pitted community against community for access to groundwater. When serious problems like saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, regional pollution and wetland destruction became widespread, local governments worked together to form an organization called Tampa Bay Water to manage water resources as a region.

Today, Tampa Bay Water provides clean drinking water to millions while also protecting the area from unsustainable water withdrawals. Because Florida law requires that water not be transferred from one water region of the state to another, Tampa Bay Water developed innovative ways to supply a steady and sustainable supply from local sources while protecting the environment.

A regional water management system for Long Island is inevitable. I just hope water wars like we saw in Tampa or droughts like we are seeing today in California don't force us into it.

Robert Brinkmann is professor of geology, environment and sustainability at Hofstra University. He is also author of "Florida Sinkholes: Science and Policy."


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