Long Island’s water supply is endangered


There’s an invisible lifeline across Long Island that sustains us all — our aquifer system.
These underground reservoirs — the source of every drop of water that flows from our taps — are the bedrock of Long Island’s clean water supply. Yet beneath the serene façade, a crisis is brewing. It’s a threat that could jeopardize our very survival.
The Long Island aquifer system comprises four primary underground formations. From the shallow glacial aquifer to the untapped Lloyd aquifer, which together with the Magothy and Jameco form the aquifer system — commonly referred to as a singular aquifer — these layers face myriad threats. From contamination by cleaning products and paints, as well as pesticides and nitrogen. From fertilizer runoff and septic tanks. And from what could be one of the most destructive threats: saltwater intrusion, exacerbated by over-pumping to fill our seemingly endless need.
The glacial and Magothy aquifers face increasing water demand. Nassau and Suffolk counties utilized nearly 415 million gallons of groundwater each day as of 2014, according to the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection — the equivalent of nearly 21,000 swimming pools. That was up more than 10 percent from just a decade earlier, and demand has grown even more since then.
There are increasing concerns about the impact on streams, ponds and wetlands. Coastal areas may face challenges as the demand for water surpasses the limits of the shallow freshwater aquifer.
Rapid development has exacerbated the issue, reducing water replenishment into the aquifer. Impermeable surfaces and sanitary sewer systems prevent rainwater from sinking into the ground and divert water from its natural course, diminishing the aquifer’s ability to recharge. Moreover, pollution — including nitrogen, pathogens and toxins — poses a grave public health concern. Long Island’s drinking water is facing a worsening crisis.
The Long Island aquifer is already believed to be the most contaminated in New York state. Urgent policy changes are needed to prevent irreversible damage.
The federal government took significant steps to address issues like these across the country in the early 1980s, creating what has become known as the Superfund program with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with investigating and cleaning up sites of long-term pollution — more than 250 of them on Long Island.
Most are former manufacturing facilities or processing plants that remain contaminated decades after their closure, creating what are known as contamination “plumes” underground. The U.S. Navy has pumped groundwater from two such sites since 2008, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, removing 10,000 pounds of contaminants from the water.
And then, just last year, Northrop Grumman — which built military aircraft on Long Island from 1942 to 1996 — struck a $100 million deal with the state to remove solvent Grumman used to clean aircraft parts, which is part of the so-called Bethpage plume.
There are several other examples of work to clean up these plumes, but even current efforts will mean that we won’t see significant results for decades. More must be done.
While cleaning contamination must be left to the experts, helping to sustain the aquifer by reducing demand, and not adding more contaminants, is an effort every one of us can immediately contribute to. Water conservation at home, local STOP programs — short for Stop Throwing Out Pollutants — and promoting and prioritizing proper pollutant disposal and responsible medication disposal are crucial steps. More vigilant collection of the waste from vehicle maintenance, less water-intensive lawn care, and the removal of impermeable surfaces — to allow rainwater to make its way to the aquifer before being lost as runoff — contribute to safeguarding our aquifer. Demanding that local lawmakers pass legislation reducing the future expanse of impermeable surfaces is vital.
Our daily choices — from the disposal of pollutants to the maintenance of our vehicles — resonate in the health of the aquifer. If we want Long Island to continue to serve as our home in a sustainable future, we must rethink our attitude about water. It is not merely a commodity, but a lifeline that sustains our communities.
The fate of Long Island’s aquifer hinges on our ability to embrace change, make informed choices, and collectively safeguard this hidden treasure beneath our feet.