Officials want to 'explore the feasibility' of tapping into NYC's upstate water supply

David M. Schwartz for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Local and state officials want to study the idea of tapping into New York City's upstate water supply because of concerns about emerging contaminants in Long Island's aquifer.

Members of the Island's delegation to the State Legislature and local officials plan to explore purchasing city water to service residents of western Nassau County in what would be a dramatic change for a region that long has relied on its underground aquifers for tap water.

State environmental and health officials said they’re open to the idea of Long Island water providers tapping into New York City's supply. The city's water department said it has extra water to sell after years of successful conservation efforts.

No formal conversations have occurred this year between city officials and water districts, as many of the districts are skeptical plans could be implemented quickly enough to alleviate the short-term need for treatment. Water districts have projected new treatment for three emerging contaminants being regulated by the state will cost $1.5 billion and could lead to rates doubling or tripling.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) sent a letter last week that asked the state environmental and health commissioners to “explore the feasibility” of using New York City’s water system to supply western Nassau residents with drinking water.

“Emerging contaminants in Long Island’s groundwater present a serious threat to the sustainable future of our communities, and the cost of treatment strains the ability to contain this threat,” Kaminsky wrote to Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. “New York City water may be a solution, but a study is required to determine if this is possible or prudent.”

Pipes connecting Queens and bordering Nassau County water districts already exist for emergency water supplies, according to a presentation from H2M engineering + architects. But significant hurdles would have to be overcome to use them regularly, including the work to lay wider pipe and studies on whether differing water chemistries between Long Island groundwater and upstate surface water could cause corrosion, water providers said.

There's also the question of whether New York City could cut off the water supply in case of drought.

Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) said she also supports studying the issue. "We have to explore all of our options when it comes to providing clean drinking water," she said in an interview.

Solages said there could be cost savings. "We talk about shared services, collaboration — this could potentially be one of the greatest collaborations we do," she said.

Long Island long has relied on underground aquifers as the sole source for its drinking water, drilling wells hundreds of feet into water-saturated sand. That source of water has usually been abundant, and relatively cheap.

But the groundwater also has been the landing spot for decades of industrial, commercial, agricultural and residential pollution.

A report this summer found Long Island had the most emerging contaminants in its water of any region in the state. New York City, which has spent billions of dollars protecting watersheds in upstate New York, had the least.

The problem is coming to a head now as the state looks to regulate a trio of new contaminants for the first time in 20 years.

It could cost water districts up to $840 million to treat the likely carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, which is found in industrial solvents and is difficult to remove. Only one treatment system so far has been approved for use in the state. The state is also regulating a pair of what scientists call "forever chemicals" because of how persistent they are in the environment and human bodies. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) is found in firefighting foams, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is found in nonstick and stain-resistant products.

Environmental advocates have stressed that long-term exposure to contaminants can increase health risks, including certain cancers.

Nassau water districts warned the state last week that they don't have enough uncontaminated water to meet the state's proposed standard for 1,4-dioxane. They said they'd be required to take dramatic conservation measures, including halting development and banning lawn irrigation.

Even facing shortages of uncontaminated water and high costs for treatment, many local water providers said significant connections to New York City water could not be done quickly enough to spare them the treatment.

Paul Granger, superintendent of the Hicksville Water District, said: "Quite candidly, it would be more for a backup supply, because you’d have to overcome a lot of planning issues."

He said when he was superintendent of the Port Washington Water District, there were initial discussions about connecting to city water. He was concerned that it would be met with local opposition due to the city's fluoridation of water, which New York City does but Long Islanders have opposed due to unproven health concerns.

At the Water Authority of Western Nassau, which borders Queens and serves 120,000 people in areas including New Hyde Park, Floral Park and Elmont, two of its major wells have contamination at 17 times the proposed state standard, according to Superintendent Michael Tierney. The district is waiting for the state to approve its plans for treatment.

Tierney said opening the connection between Nassau and Queens is a complicated issue, including because of differing water pressures and fluoridation, and at best would be a temporary solution.
"I like the way people are thinking," he said. "It's a possible Band-Aid in certain situations. I don’t see it as a long-term solution."

Patrick Halpin, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, said water providers need to think regionally about how to deal with the problem, including buying water wholesale from New York City or the Suffolk County Water Authority.

"We should be utilizing all the best regional water resources we have and get beyond thinking that local fixes, and local filtration systems, will solve this problem, because it won’t. We have an obligation to provide the highest quality drinking water," said Halpin, a former Suffolk County Executive.

He said local districts, governed by locally elected boards or municipalities, traditionally have worried about losing jobs or local control through consolidation, but the Suffolk County Water Authority has sold water wholesale to local water districts, which have maintained operations and jobs maintaining and testing the local water system.

Tyrand Fuller, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference, which represents water providers, said the Long Island Commission on Aquifer Protection, created by Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2013, already has started to evaluate the long-term option of using New York City upstate water as a supplemental supply. He said upstate water "would probably not be the only supply. We do require a backup."

Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis doesn't think New York City is a short-term fix, but said with the federal government requiring new rounds of testing for more contaminants — many of which are being found in Long Island water — it might be the future.

"We're keeping an eye on it. I think we're decades out. I wouldn't be surprised if in 40 to 50 years, it's the norm," he said.

New York City has used aggressive conservation efforts to cut demand for water by 33% since the late 1970s and 80s, from 1.5 billion gallons a day to about 1 billion gallons, while population grew from 8 million to 8.6 million, according to city Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Edward Timbers.

“In terms of anything with Long Island communities, we’re happy to have discussions and work with our regional partners,” Timbers said.

A state Department of Health spokeswoman said that the agency is encouraging districts to look at interconnections and consolidation to meet proposed standards.

“As water systems prepare to comply with New York’s newest drinking water standards, the department encourages water systems to consider nontreatment options such as interconnections and/or consolidations as a possible means to achieving compliance,” according to a statement from spokeswoman Erin Silk.

Erica Ringewald, a spokeswoman with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the department continues to protect the aquifers "while not ruling out options like additional hookups to build redundancy in Long Island’s water systems."

Environmental advocates said the idea is worth looking at, but can't be a substitute for protecting and cleaning Long Island's aquifers.

Sarah Meyland, director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, said, "It’s not something that they could accomplish in a year. It could easily take as long to be a solution as it takes to install technology to meet the new standards."

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said, "This could be a very good idea. It would help alleviate the quantity problem in Nassau County. And New York City has good quality of drinking water. It could be a very helpful tool for our water supply, both the quantity and quality."