Local environmentalists wary of Queens wells proposals


A plan to re-authorize wells in southeast Queens could have a negative affect on Long Island’s drinking water, environmentalists say.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is currently petitioning the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to renew the water withdrawal permits for 68 wells in Queens, which expire at the end of this year. The DEP has owned the wells since 1996.

“Although we are not proposing any changes to the operation of the water system, we are seeking to renew our existing permit,” said Tara Deighan, a DEP spokeswoman, in a statement. “We have no plans to use the wells.”

Re-permitting the wells, however, would enable New York City residents to have a back-up supply of water in the case of a drought, according to Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the environmental group Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She said it has become necessary for New York City to re-open the wells because the city is planning to shut down an aquifer that transports water from upstate New York into the city due to construction.

Esposito is fearful that re-opening the Queens wells, which have not been used since 2007, would reduce Long Island’s drinking water supply. Long Island is designated as a sole-source aquifer, which means that all its drinking water comes from aquifers underground. If the NYCDEP is successful in its bid to re-open the wells in Queens, they have the potential to take 62 million gallons of water per day from Long Island’s aquifers, according to the draft environmental impact statement.

“New York City has a really good water supply, it comes from upstate New York, it’s good clean water, and Long Island is having difficulty with our water supply,” said Bruce Kennedy, Sea Cliff village administrator. “This is our natural water supply; you only get one shot at this. We screw this up we’re in trouble for centuries afterwards.”

“This is a bad plan for Nassau County, period,” said Esposito at the Nassau County Legislature public hearing on the proposal to renew the permits on June 21. “We reject the whole premise of this plan; we reject this whole plan and we’re going to call on the DEC to reject the whole thing.” Esposito also said that the plan would only exacerbate a drought on Long Island.

Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) wants residents to get more involved in this issue. “It’s something that not enough people are aware of and not enough people are being proactive about,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to prevent these wells from opening to protect our only water supply. They have alternate options. We do not.”

Other environmentalists worry about possible contamination from the wells. If the 68 Queens wells drained an increasing amount of water from the aquifers, the water table would sink, and more salt water from the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean could infiltrate the aquifers.

Sarah Meyland, director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology said the Lloyd aquifer, the deepest of Long Island’s aquifers, is on the cusp of having saltwater intrusion and may be pushed over the limit by New York City’s drainage of the aquifer.

Carl LoBue, a marine scientist and New York oceans program director for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island, said once the wells start sucking up salt water, they have to be fully shut down. “When NYC starts to pump water, that’s more water that’s coming out, and can accelerate the rate at which seawater reaches the well.”

Communities that border the Sound and the Atlantic are especially concerned. “Being on the North Shore, and being part of a peninsula, we’re concerned about salt water intrusion, and we’re further concerned about the changing of the flow direction beneath the ground,” said Glen Cove Director of Public Works Jim Byrne. “Now with the population increase, we all need more water. If they open those wells up again we want to make sure that it’s not going to affect our drinking water.”

Byrne said the City of Glen Cove believes there should be “an extensive analysis and environmental report on how the activation may affect Western Nassau County.”

“We’re already withdrawing a lot of water in Nassau County,” said LoBue. “Removing more water from the ground to supply NYC can have a variety of consequences that range from drying up streams to accelerating the rate at which toxic contaminates get into our drinking water.”

Depleting the water could also change the flow of the known toxic plumes, which carry pollutants. In Bethpage, where the Northrop Grumman plant produced equipment for the military in the 1900s, pollutants flowed into the Long Island Sound. To prevent these pollutants from contaminating the Sound, however, the Town of Oyster Bay installed remediation wells in the path of the plume to clean up the water. Once the water table decreases, these plumes would no longer flow into the sound. Instead, they would flow into Queens, where there are no remediation wells. It would take years to install one.

“If you change the direction of the plume, you’re adding time, you’re adding money and they might not be cleaned up at all,” Esposito said at the hearing.

To save Long Island’s water, Esposito is urging the DEP to look for alternatives to opening the wells. “It should evaluate water reuse capabilities,” she said at the hearing. “Rather than take our water, there is a lot of opportunity in New York City to reuse gray water and water that has already been treated.”

In the meantime, Esposito is urging concerned residents to write to the NYSDEC to say that they oppose the renewal of the permits for the Queens wells.

Meyland, however, said she wants the DEP to hold off on opening the wells until the $6 million United States Geologic Survey Groundwater Study shows the long-term effects of using one water source. “We want the ability to have science give us a better understanding,” she said.