Lack of rain continues to strain Riverhead’s water supply

09/29/2016 9:00 AM |

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In addition to its rich agricultural history, downtown riverfront and array of vineyards, Riverhead Town is distinctive for its shallow supply of fresh water, which floats in “bubbles” underground, just above a layer of seawater.

But as more and more wells are dug into these aquifers, local authorities are warning residents and businesses of the need to begin conserving this “public resource.”

“This, by far, is one of the most sensitive areas on the island,” Tyrand Fuller, lead hydrogeologist for the Suffolk County Water Authority, said during a meeting in Southold earlier this month.

Local authorities are preaching the importance of protecting the area’s fresh water supply, a problem that vexes Riverhead Town’s Water District as well as Southold’s aquifer.

Riverhead Town is currently under a drought watch, which the state Department of Environmental Conservation declared in July for the first time in 14 years. Since then, the lack of rain has only gotten worse, according to the National Weather Service.

Each month since February, rainfall totals have been lower than normal, according to NWS data collected from the agency’s nearest weather station in Islip. So far this year, precipitation is down by nearly 9.2 inches compared to average levels. This follows an especially dry year in 2015, when precipitation totals were 7.64 inches below normal. 

This past summer was also particularly dry, with just 5.25 inches of rain -— making it the fourth-driest summer since 1984, when record-keeping at Islip began.

“More often it’s been negative [rainfalls],” said John Murray, a meteorologist with the NWS in Upton. “It’s below normal.”

The lack of rain is affecting groundwater reserves, Mr. Murray said, adding that numerous wells tested across Suffolk County are running “below normal” to “much below normal.”

Streams are also flowing weakly, he said.

Stony Brook University biologists said slower-moving streams are partially to blame for the growth of dangerous blue-green algae in the Peconic River for the first time this summer.

Mr. Murray said it takes weeks for groundwater to react to rainfall, or the lack thereof. 

But even a sudden burst of rain wouldn’t help matters, he said. That’s because the dry ground wouldn’t be able to soak up all the water, leading to flooding.

“Any time you get heavy rain — a large amount of rain in a short amount of time — the ground doesn’t have time to absorb it all, and you get more runoff,” he said. “The rapid accumulation of water … is going to be really bad.”

Instead, Long Island needs to see steady light rain that occurs throughout the day over a few days each week. That will start to replenish the rain deficit in a meaningful way, Mr. Murray said.

The water authority issued a water alert earlier this summer requesting that customers keep non-essential water use to a minimum. Riverhead’s water district services its own nearly 13,000 customers apart from the water authority, though the two water suppliers can share the flow if needed, said assistant water district superintendent Thomas Kruger.

Unlike other parts of Long Island, where freshwater aquifers extend deeper underground, Riverhead’s water “bubbles” float closer to the surface. Since fresh water is less dense, it remains separated from the salt water below, Mr. Fuller said.

But this setup makes the situation precarious, he explained. If too much water is drawn from the aquifer, the bubbles could shrink and salt water could begin to seep into public and private wells.

The average Suffolk County homeowner uses about 160,000 gallons of water each year, Mr. Fuller said. But some users — primarily businesses and large residential complexes — can use millions of gallons annually.

Mr. Kruger said residents who water their lawns en masse each morning are producing the greatest negative effect on the town water district’s supplies.

“Demand in the morning with irrigation kills us,” he said. “People have this conception that watering at 3 o’clock in the morning is better. It’s not.”

The peak demand of the season is almost over, he said, as fall arrives and summer homeowners move out. Other larger developments and residences tend to shut off their irrigation systems, which helps to save water in the district’s tanks.

Mr. Kruger said the water district pumps as much as 17 million gallons of water per day to customers during the peak irrigation season. In the fall and winter, that number can drop to 4 to 5 million gallons of daily flow, he said.

Residents can water their lawns less often, fix leaks in their homes and install water conserving appliances and fixtures in their houses to help cut down on waste, he said.

Mr. Kruger said the district is “very concerned” about the recent drought.

“It’s definitely a problem,” he added.

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said a recent public hearing on water quality held in Hauppauge lasted hours, proving the importance of the issue. He intends to hold a similar public hearing on the East End, so local residents can also have their say.

While residents have been urged to take conservation steps, a summary of the 25 top water users in Riverhead is dominated by businesses and large residential developments.

According to documentation provided by the Riverhead Water District, the top water user in town for 2015 was the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center, as one might expect. Over the past year, the aquarium’s account — which includes the center’s ballroom — led all other users with consumption of 64.2 million gallons.

The next-highest water users were the TJ Maxx shopping center on Route 58, which consumed 60.7 million gallons in 2015; the Foxwood housing development, where all housing properties on site used a combined total of 41.4 million gallons; and Peconic Bay Medical Center, which used nearly 30 million gallons.

PBMC spokeswoman Lauren Jacobsen said the facility has upgraded most of its restrooms to be “water saving resources,” with touchless faucets installed to try to prevent waste.

“Peconic Bay Medical Center is always conscious of conserving water throughout the year,” she said. “We are aware of the issue and are making every effort to conserve water where possible.”

A listing of Riverhead’s top residential users provided by the water district is dotted with farms that aren’t hooked up to their own wells. However, homeowners at several of the top water-using accounts say the high flow amounts were due to broken pipes, not waste.

Ed Tuccio’s properties on Roanoke and Reeves avenues are the highest combined water users, with 2 million and 1.4 million gallons, respectively. But Mr. Tuccio said much of the usage at his Roanoke Avenue property, which is a farm for nearly 100 buffalo, was due to a broken pipe in the basement of the pumper house on site. The water usage is high at both properties because of automatic systems that keep the buffalo and horses hydrated, he explained.

Mr. Tuccio said he’s aware of water conservation concerns and as a result doesn’t irrigate on either property to save water and money.

The next highest water user is another case of broken piping, according to the property owner. A Sandy-damaged property on Overlook Drive was listed as using 1.9 million gallons of water in 2015, but owner Andrew Isardi said no one has lived there for years. Mr. Isardi said he plans to investigate the piping to the home to find any leak, saying he had no idea the property was using so much water until he received a $3,000 bill. He hopes to get a refund from the town if he can prove the water was never actually used.

Among Riverhead’s top so-called residential water users, just one is a bona fide home, water district data shows. That property is a four-bedroom, 2.5-bath single-family home in a development near a golf course, which according to the data used 1.66 million gallons last year.

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Credit: A sprinkler runs outside a business on Main Road in Jamesport earlier this month. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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