In January 2018, officials in Cape Town, South Africa, issued a dire warning: In three months, the city of 4 million people would run out of water unless urgent conservation action was taken. The city was fast counting down to what officials called “Day Zero.” Action — and desperately needed rainfall — staved off catastrophe.
On Long Island, we should take what happened in Cape Town — 7,800 miles away, on the other end of the Earth — as an object lesson in what could occur here if do not value water, our most precious resource, as we should.
Long Islanders get their water from aquifers — underground stores hundreds of feet beneath the surface that were thousands of years in the making. An aquifer is like a bank account. If you withdraw more money than you deposit, eventually you run out of cash. Same deal with an aquifer. Suck more water out of it than is recharged through rainfall and you run out of fresh water to drink.
In 2020, consider making this one resolution, if you’re into that sort of thing: Conserve water. And not just this year. Every year for the rest of your life. The generations to follow will thank you someday.
We think of Long Island as this really big, really long island. It isn’t an especially large space, however, given the number of people who live here — nearly 2.9 million in Nassau and Suffolk counties, to say nothing of Queens and Brooklyn. We know we’re overpopulated by the traffic jams on our parkways and expressways, and our population is only predicted to grow in the coming decades.
Increased population will, we hope and trust, bring greater economic output, and hence a stronger local economy. It will also, however, further strain our already strained resources — in particular, our water supply, which is ironic, given that we are surrounded by water.
We are surrounded, however, by undrinkable saltwater. Desalinization is a future possibility, but it is prohibitively expensive at the moment, requiring massive amounts of energy. So, at least for now, scratch desalinization off the list of possible solutions to our impending water crisis.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, recently proposed tapping into the New York City water system — at least in western Nassau. The proposal came after it was determined that much of Long Island’s drinking water is tainted by minute amounts of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
That’s because we take our water from underground stores. Every time we dump a chemical into the ground — purposely or inadvertently — it leaches down through the soil and into our groundwater and drinking water.
Groundwater is found at or near the surface, unlike the drinking water that we pull from aquifers deep in the earth. I live in south Merrick, where the water table is high because of its proximity to Merrick Bay. If I dig down in the ground three feet or so, water collects in a pool at the bottom of the hole. That’s groundwater.
The so-called Bethpage plume, a slurry of highly toxic chemicals, has been flowing for decades in groundwater from Bethpage south toward Wantagh and the Great South Bay. Grumman and the Navy may have dumped the chemicals at a one-time airplane manufacturing plant in central Bethpage, or somehow the chemicals escaped on their own. Either way, they’re in the groundwater, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation predicted recently that cleaning up the mess could take a century.
It seemingly takes a long time for water to seep down from the surface to the aquifers, but not really that long. Industrial activity didn’t begin in earnest on Long Island until the middle of the 20th century. Until the 1930s, the Island was full of farms — mostly organic farms. Then, World War II brought heavy industry — and chemical contamination. The chemicals that are now showing up in our drinking water were dumped — accidentally or otherwise — sometime in the past eight decades. That’s a single human lifetime.
What will Long Island’s water supply look like 80 years from now, in 2100? Will future Long Islanders still be able to draw water from our aquifers, or will they be at the mercy of New York City to supply them?
Now, not later, is the time to begin preserving our aquifers so we have an inheritance to give our children and their children. That means drastically reducing use.
Ask yourself, do I really need an automatic sprinkler system? If I have one, do I need to run it daily, including when it rains? Do I need my own pool that I hardly ever swim in? What’s wrong with a public pool? Why do I let the water run while I’m shaving or brushing my teeth? Could I — heaven forbid — take shorter showers?
Such questions might be thought of as sacrilegious here, in the nation’s first suburb, where consumption is king, but more of us must become heretics. Otherwise, future Long Islanders could very well face their own Day Zero.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.