Understanding the Drinking Water Beneath Our Feet

SCWA Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Operations Joe Pokorny explains water projects in Sag Harbor.
SCWA Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Operations Joe Pokorny explains water projects in Sag Harbor.

The Suffolk County Water Authority is the largest groundwater supplier in the United States, delivering an average of 188 million gallons per day from 586 wells throughout the county.

But the water that comes out of our taps is something that many of us take for granted, and the Water Authority is in the midst of embarking on an educational campaign to help the public better understand where their water supply comes from, how it is tested and treated, and what we can all do to protect this resource for our children.

The Water Authority, which is a public benefit corporation that is not affiliated with Suffolk County, held the third in its series of WaterTalk lectures June 7 at Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library, where experts took questions and gave presentations on topics ranging from water testing standards to pressure issues, chlorination and infrastructure projects.

Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Operations Joe Pokorny explained the relationship between altitude and water pressure, which leads to some tricky engineering in areas like Noyac, which includes both low-lying areas and morainal headlands created by the retreating glacier that created Long Island.

For example, he said, the water tower on Division Street that serves Sag Harbor is at an altitude of 185 feet. If the flow of water was unregulated, customers below that altitude would see an increase in pressure of 1.5 psi per 2.5 feet of rise between their house and the top of the tower.

But because customers below the water tower live at different altitudes, he said, their water supply lines need to be placed in different ‘pressure zones,’ with different water regulation controls based on their altitude.

“Otherwise, the person at the bottom’s sink would pop off the wall” from too much pressure, he said.

Mr. Pokorny said the Water Authority is currently working on a project to rezone the water infrastructure in Noyac according to new pressure zones, hoping to boost the pressure on the south side of Noyac Road. The Water Authority tested the project last year.

“It worked well during last summer’s peak,” said Mr. Pokorny. “In the fall, we’re going to make permanent piping changes.”

Laboratory Project Manager Fil Sinni, who has worked in the Water Authority’s Hauppauge lab for 32 years, said Sag Harbor, along with many other areas on the South Fork has “some of the best water quality I’ve seen on Long Island.”

While the village’s industrial past has been the source of several points of serious soil and water contamination, most of those sites are downtown, near the water’s edge and far downgradient from the village’s public water supply.

Mr. Sinni said his lab tests for 392 compounds, 250 more than are required by federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, with some samples tested as often as every week. This information is compiled every year in a water quality newsletter that is sent to customers and available online here: https://www.scwa.com/about/wq_reports/.

He added that, because the Water Authority serves more than 10,000 customers each year, it is subject to a new EPA mandate called the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, known as UMCR4, which requires testing for contaminants that are not yet regulated at the federal level, including substances like PFOA/PFOS (used in firefighting foam and non-stick cookware), 1,4 Dioxane (used in cosmetics and historically as a solvent) and pharmaceuticals.

The UMCR4 testing program will begin in January 2018.

“We’re one of a dozen labs in the country that can run UMCR,” he said.

SCWA lead hydrologist Ty Fuller points out the spikes in water usage caused by seasonal irrigation.

Lead Hydrologist Ty Fuller gave an overview of a new, publicly available online database called WaterTraq, which combines lab data for untreated water samples with Geographic Information Systems data to provide information on how land use is affecting water quality.

The Water Authority is working on the project in collaboration with the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection.

The database is available online here: http://liaquifercommission.com/watertraq.html.

Mr. Fuller said that the Water Authority currently pumps 200 billion gallons of water out of the island’s aquifers each year, but during that time, 300 billion gallons of rainwater fall here. While we’re lucky here to have that degree of recharge, two-thirds of the Water Authority’s wells exist just to meet extra summer demand, mostly due to irrigation.

“Sixty-five to 75 percent of our usage is May through September,” he said.

This becomes a problem when it comes to infrastructure expenses, he said, and it’s also a problem for fire protection.

Mr. Fuller showed attendees a graph of how water levels at the Division Street tower dropped during the Sag Harbor Cinema fire last December. While the dip was mild, it occurred at a time of day (early morning), that, had the fire happened during irrigation season, could have led to severe water pressure problems for the firefighters.

“Imagine if it had happened in summer,” he said. “Most irrigation occurs between 6 and 8 a.m. It’s a strain on the system. Maintaining fire protection is our concern. People set their irrigation systems and forget it. Even on a rainy day, people are still using it.”

The Water Authority has been campaigning for the last couple years for residents to adopt odd/even day irrigation practices, watering their lawns on even numbered days if their house number is even, and vice versa.

“It’s a great first step,” said Mr. Fuller. “Grass needs to be stressed for deeper root growth. Watering at night, from 9 p.m. to midnight, is also helping us avoid infrastructure demands. Six a.m. is the scariest time in our operations.”

“If it stopped raining tomorrow, we would have enough water for years and years and years,” said Water Authority CEO Jeff Szabo. “It’s moving water through the system to get it where it wants to be that’s the issue.”

Mr. Szabo added that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has asked the Water Authority to set a goal of reducing water use by 15 percent.

“We see environmental benefits, and it reduced our carbon footprint,” said Mr. Fuller. “But we need a commitment from our customers. We can’t do this on our own.”

The Water Authority also has a program called WaterWise, which provides free checkups of water usage in customers’ homes and rebates for purchase of low-flow devices in customers’ homes.

Attendees shared a variety of concerns ranging from chlorine in the water (which the Suffolk County Health Department requires the Water Authority to add) to gunk getting trapped in filters in downtown Sag Harbor (the aging galvanized infrastructure there needs to be frequently flushed) to geothermal heating systems, which can be a big user of public water resources if they are not designed with a closed loop system.

Mr. Pokorny said Brita water filters do a good job of removing the chlorinated taste from drinking water.

Many attendees also shared concerns about media reports about old septic systems that are leaching nitrogen into the groundwater, where it eventually travels to surface waters, causing algae blooms.

EPA standards set the maximum amount of nitrogen in drinking water at 10 parts per million, but recent research has shown that excess nitrogen can be harmful to the environment at far lower concentrations. But nitrogen, one of the most common elements on earth, is not a concern of drinking water suppliers, said Mr. Szabo, though it is a concern for environmentalists worried about the way excess nitrogen can affect ecosystems.

One attendee asked about constantly reoccurring flooding on Bridge Street, alongside the parking lot to the south of downtown Sag Harbor, which many residents believe is caused by a broken old water main.

Mr. Pokorny said it’s more likely to be an underground spring, but he would check that with experts in the field.

”Our people know every street, every valve like it’s one of their children,” he said. “Long Island’s aquifer is one of the most poked and prodded in the world.”

The Water Authority is planning another WaterTalk lecture on the East End later this summer. We’ll have more information on the date and location of the talk when it becomes available.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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