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May 15, 2015 11:06 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Suffolk County Water Authority Says 'The Hills' Will Not Impact Groundwater Supplies

The Suffolk County Water Authority water well field on Spinney Road in East Quogue. KYLE CAMPBELL
May 17, 2015 5:51 PM

Suffolk County Water Authority officials say that a proposed resort development calling for 118 residences and an 18-hole golf course on 168 acres in East Quogue—near a pair of well fields that now supply a large portion of the hamlet’s drinking water—would not impact those supplies for at least a quarter century, if ever.

But some local environmentalists and scientists, including East Quogue resident Dr. Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, point out that one of the hamlet’s two well fields is already suspect—its water needs to be “blended,” or mixed, with the output of two different aquifers to keep nitrogen contamination levels down.

His argument echoes one by local environmentalists who are still pushing for the preservation of nearly 600 acres of undeveloped land being targeted as part of the proposed planned development district, known as “The Hills at Southampton.” It is that any additional development in the area will contribute to the further deterioration of the hamlet’s drinking water supply, including the one well field that is already suspect.

That well field, which sits just off Spinney Road and southeast of the Kracke, Densieski and Laurel Crown farms, currently produces drinking water that contains, on average, 8 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. That is slightly below the 10-milligram maximum for all drinking water, in accordance with county and federal limits, according to data compiled by the SCWA. The water comes from mixing water from the Upper Glacial aquifer, which is the shallowest aquifer and located about 100 feet below the surface, with the output from the deeper Magothy aquifer, which sits about 500 feet below the surface.

The SCWA needed to tap the Magothy aquifer in East Quogue in 2005 when the Upper Glacial aquifer became unsafe to drink on its own, due to the exceedingly high level of nitrogen in the water, according to the SCWA. It tests its well fields at least twice a year for nitrates.

The tapping was prompted because, at the time, according to SCWA data, untreated water collected from the Upper Glacial aquifer along Spinney Road contained between 9.84 milligrams and 10.7 milligrams of nitrogen per liter during initial testing. In a second screening later that year, it came in between 12 milligrams and 14.2 milligrams per liter—with some samples exceeding 15 milligrams per liter.

Three wells now supply water from that field, with the shallowest tapping water 118 feet below the surface, and the deepest pulling water from a depth of 532 feet 8 inches, according to the SCWA. A third well draws water from 161 feet below the surface.

A Threat Or Not?

SCWA officials are estimating that it would take at least 25 years or longer for any nitrates introduced by the new residential and golf development to move underground and reach the Spinney Road well field. But authority officials also note that there is no guarantee that groundwater originating from “The Hills” site, if it is ultimately approved by the Southampton Town Board, would flow toward the suspect well field.

As part of its application for a PDD, a special overlay zoning designation that requires the approval of four out of five Town Board members, Discovery Land Company of Arizona is offering 15 proposed benefits, with one standing out among the field. Valued at $220,000 by the developer, that benefit calls for the donation of 4 acres of land in East Quogue on the northeastern corner of “The Hills” property, south of Sunrise Highway, so that the SCWA could eventually install a new drinking water well there—if needed.

“If the water authority isn’t worried about the water at all, why would they be preparing to drill a new well?” Dr. Gobler asked during a recent interview. “There just seems an inconsistent story. Seems to be strange.”

Mark Hissey, senior vice president at Discovery Land, explained recently that SCWA officials asked for the land donation so that they can improve water pressure and their infrastructure in the area—and that the request has nothing to do with the quality of the drinking water, and whether or not nitrates produced from “The Hills” could eventually impact supplies.

“The well fields in the area are not a concern for them, so there was no need for our donation to them from a water quality standpoint,” Mr. Hissey wrote in an email.

Carrie Gallagher, chief sustainability officer at the SCWA, confirmed that her office is looking to make infrastructure improvements, and that one of their goals is to connect the future residents of “The Hills”—as well as those hamlet residents who still have private wells—to the public water supply. “A new [well field] is not necessary for us right now to meet our customer needs,” she said. “If the development goes forward, it would be helpful to have additional capacity.”

What is clear, however, is that the hamlet’s other well field—located off Malloy Drive, about three miles east of the Spinney Road field—is pumping water that, on average, contains significantly lower concentrations of nitrogen, according to SCWA data. According to those records, the water produced from that field—which taps only the shallower Upper Glacial aquifer—contains, on average, about 1 milligram of nitrogen per liter of water, prompting environmentalists to label the water as “near pristine.” And they are also quick to note that the water is that way because there is limited development near the well field.

The wells currently feeding the Malloy Drive field go down 148 feet 3 inches and 149 feet 2 inches, according to the SCWA. Therefore, SCWA officials are estimating that it would take about 50 years for nitrogen from “The Hills” development to possibly impact that well, if at all.

SCWA officials also note that preexisting development, including nearby farms and homes, are to blame, in part, for the elevated nitrogen levels in the drinking water. But they are also quick to point out that the water is still safe to drink, and that any new development would have a minor impact on current nitrogen levels.

“[The drinking water is] already impacted by existing land use,” said Joseph Pokorny, the SCWA’s deputy chief executive officer for operations, during a recent interview. “These lots are not going to make any difference at all. Malloy [Drive well field] nitrogen levels are so low … the impact is really going to be barely perceptible.”

Ms. Gallagher, the chief sustainability officer at the SCWA, also pointed out that the spikes in nitrate levels could be because both treated and untreated water is tested to ensure that the treatment system—in this instance, the blending of water with the Magothy aquifer—is working properly.

“If [The Hills] has the best equipment and the best septic systems on the homes, the impact would be much lower than a typical development,” Ms. Gallagher said.

As part of their sales pitch, Discovery Land officials have proposed installing a high-tech wastewater treatment facility on site, to better contain the waste created by the 118 residential units and 18-hole golf course. They have also said they are open to the idea of installing a permeable reactive barrier, a submerged barrier that utilizes carbon-based organic materials—such as mulch and wood chips—as means for filtering and removing harmful nitrates from the soil.

Dr. Henry Bokuniewicz, a professor of oceanography at Stony Brook University, is also of the opinion that the new development, if eventually approved, would not automatically result in the further degradation of water quality levels in East Quogue. He explained that the flow of groundwater from the development site, for the most part, misses the narrow, plume-like tract that feeds groundwater into the hamlet’s two well fields.

“The development area doesn’t really overlap,” Dr. Bokuniewicz said. “The area that this development would be in is kind of in between the Spinney Road well field, but it’s not in the capture zone. That water comes from the west and north.”

The other well fields in the area, located on County Road 31 in Westhampton, and Meeting House Road and Quogue-Riverhead Road, both in Quogue, are all in near pristine condition, according to SCWA data. They also supply some of East Quogue’s drinking water.

The SCWA currently provides drinking water to 2,379 accounts in East Quogue, according to its own data, though it cannot provide additional information regarding what fields supply what areas of the hamlet. There are also at least 95 homes that still rely on private wells, those that are not monitored by the SCWA.

Those private wells, according to Dr. Gobler, link with the Upper Glacial aquifer and, unless homeowners regularly test the quality of their drinking water, it is unknown if the water flowing from their faucets contains nitrogen and, if so, to what extent.

“At least with water authority wells, you know what you’re getting,” Dr. Gobler said. “There are a lot of other people who don’t know and could be affected.”

Is Farming To Blame?

Environmentalists note that the Spinney Road well field’s close proximity to three farms, including one that has been in operation for about 100 years, is to blame, at least in part, for the high levels of nitrogen now found in the drinking water.

Fertilizers used in the farming industry typically contain high levels of nitrogen that, if not absorbed by crops, eventually enter the soil and slowly make their way into the groundwater. It was this scenario, in addition to other minor factors, according to the SCWA, that prompted officials to tap the deeper aquifer a decade ago for the Spinney Road well field.

“We will drill if it shows higher levels of contaminates,” Ms. Gallagher said, explaining how the SCWA addresses a situation when one of its wells has unacceptable levels of contaminants.

When asked about the situation with the Spinney Road well field, Ms. Gallagher said engineers think the nitrogen contamination is linked to the farms. “We don’t have a way of determining exactly where a source of pollution comes from, but it seems like there’s been a lot of farming activity,” she said. “That is our theory.”

Two of the three farms in the immediate vicinity of the proposed project, the Densieski and Laurel Crown farms, are still operational. The Kracke farm is not, and Discovery Land intends to purchase the 62 acres and preserve it as open space as part of its application now before the town.

The Densieski and Laurel Crown farms, and the Kracke farm before it stopped producing crops, had been operational for decades, and SCWA officials and environmentalists alike suspect that the fertilizers applied over the decades have contributed to the high nitrogen levels. Suffolk County Health Department Records show that as much as 20 percent of nitrogen contamination in drinking water across Long Island has been caused by the agriculture industry.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, explained that the farming industry is largely unregulated and only required to use the “best management practices possible” when growing and maintaining crops. “It’s not good enough,” he said. “Best management practices are poisoning our drinking and surface waters.”

A representative from Laurel Crown Farms did not return calls seeking comment over the past few weeks, and a representative from Densieski Farms declined to comment on the situation when contacted recently. Also, representatives from the Long Island Farm Bureau did not return calls seeking comment.

“The damage has already been done, that should be an excuse for major action,” said Mr. Amper, explaining why his organization, and others, is trying to get Southampton Town to reject “The Hills” application and, instead, renew attempts to buy and preserve the land. Those groups, which includes the Group for the East End, have even threatened legal action if the Town Board ultimately approves the project.

“Separately, we need to find alternatives for individual cesspools and septic systems,” Mr. Amper said, noting the high levels of nitrogen released into the groundwater from both wastewater treatment systems.

Dr. Bokuniewicz acknowledged that the development would certainly increase the amount of nitrates entering the groundwater. The real issue, he continued, is to what extent considering that the developer is willing to install high-tech wastewater treatment systems to help control the amount that actually enters the ground.

“Anything is going to be putting contaminates from the surface into the groundwater, but the point is this is not going to impact those supply wells,” he said.

But even if the new nitrates miss the suspect well field, the contaminants eventually will head south and east to Weesuck Creek, an already-impaired body of water, he added.

Two weeks ago, on May 7, the State Department of Environmental Conservation closed all of western Shinnecock Bay to shellfishing due to a presence of a potentially deadly biotoxin. The decision to close the approximately 3,900 acres of bay bottom came after shellfish collected from monitoring sites in Weesuck Creek in East Quogue showed levels of saxitoxin two times higher than the federal threshold for closing down shellfish harvesting.

Saxitoxin is a marine biotoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, which has sickened hundreds nationwide over the past decade, and even caused two deaths in the Pacific Northwest in 2010 when people ate shellfish tainted with it.

Local environmentalists point to that situation when calling on the Town Board to reject the application. They also agree that even if the land cannot be purchased for preservation, permitting the as-of-right development, which calls for the construction of between 52 and 82 single-family homes, with individual cesspools, on the main 360-acre property, is the better option.

“Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, government is allowed to further restrict development on private properties … the answer is the town is free to use SEQRA to reduce the number of homes in the interest of protecting public water,” Mr. Amper said. “The difference between a mega-golf resort and a controlled residential development is huge.”

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