Thursday, April 19, 2012

Long Island Water: The More Things Change

Over the last few years, a groundwater pollution Superfund site in my community has generated concern among local residents; that much I’m sure of.

What I’m less clear of is to what extent this danger – the dry-cleaning fluid tetrachloroethylene has contaminated groundwater in a nearby well field (which comes with a hefty price tag for treatment) – has reignited people’s interest in the role they have in protecting their local water supply.

The “local” supply, in this case, is the Long Island aquifer system, designated “sole source” by the U.S. EPA. “It’s our only source of drinking water,” says Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, in a new video produced by GRACE. “One hundred percent of our drinking water comes from directly underneath our feet.”
I did not really know much about Long Island's hydrology until I went to graduate school. In 1972, for my class project in Dr. John Harshbarger's 'Development of Groundwater Resources' (catch the title - 40 years ago) course, I looked at water-supply options for Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

The following vertical cross-sectional flow net (click to enlarge) came along 20 years too late (although I sketched a similar one), from this 1992 paper by H. Buxton and E. Modica:

The three major aquifers are shown: Upper Glacial, Magothy, and Lloyd.
I do recall some pollution problems in those 'early' days: nitrate and phosphate from sewage and fertilizers, and hexavalent chromium from an industrial facility.

We also had the infamous 'sumps', which collected storm runoff and recharged the groundwater systems. Pretty foresightful until people realized what was in that storm runoff!
From the Rabin article it looks like the major issue is the lack of coordinated water management:
Contributing to Long Island’s water quality woes, and an issue touched upon in the video, is the fragmented state of management and oversight of the local water supply. Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation, says it best in a recent viewpoint about the tremendous benefits of a potential merger between a local water district and a neighboring water authority:

"This makes obvious sense. And it points up what doesn’t make sense: having a single aquifer system tapped by 60-plus local water suppliers, and managed and monitored by a dizzying array of federal, state, and local agencies.

That structure is rooted in history, not logic. It’s inefficient, and worse, it’s risky. With water management so fragmented, we’re essentially left with no one in charge of it. No one ensuring its long-term viability.

The result? Our water quality is declining fast…

It’s time to recognize water quality as an urgent threat that we must not ignore. We need to act now to establish a comprehensive, [island-wide] water protection plan, and the management structure to make it work."
Disjointed, dysfunctional water management? Join the club, Long Island!

“The beauty of Long Island is that we are an island. The challenge of Long Island is we are an island.” - Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director, CCE


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