The biggest problem facing any community isn’t energy – but water (this was well documented in one of the best animated movies of all time: “Rango.”) Contaminated water has felled armies, wiped out communities; waterborne illnesses kill millions. Drought, saltwater intrusion have made regions uninhabitable. And now we know that drinking water laced with lead will retard intellectual and physical development, taking its toll on individuals, their families, their communities and an entire nation for generations.
A resource that everyone takes for granted as free as rain is in fact much more limited. In our rush toward economic progress, many of our water resources have been contaminated and ruined. That isn’t just olden days – it continues on, in the mountaintop mining practices in Appalachia, in fracking in Pennsylvania, in agricultural practices in Wisconsin.
The lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, caused when the state, in his zeal to cut costs, switched water sources without treating for the higher concentration of chemicals that corroded pipes, causing lead to leach into the water, highlights another source of the problem: aging infrastructure.
Flint has brought the decaying of our municipal water systems to the surface. It’s long been an issue on Long Island, where we depend upon our aquifer for our drinking water supply. And particular concern for the Great Neck Peninsula, where over-development, over-pumping and poor management had exposed our supply to threat of salt-water intrusion, not to mention the plume of contamination spewing from the former Sperry Rand site.
Thankfully, our water utility was taken back from private hands and is now controlled by a collective of our local governments, the Great Neck North Water Authority. The directors have made decisions going back decades to purify our water to standards that exceed even the federal government’s.
But government control isn’t necessarily protection nor wise, as the criminally negligent state leadership has shown in Flint, Michigan, in which a governor-appointed city manager was given total authority over locally elected officials. Even worse – a criminal – government officials allowed the lead poisoning – and now we learn Legionnaire’s Disease, as well – to go on for more than a year, while lives were being destroyed.
The crisis in Flint has raised consciousness and concerns throughout the country of aging infrastructure and its impact on water supply.
Governor Cuomo, in stark contrast to Michigan Governor Snyder, has moved to address water quality in the state.
“You know Flint, Michigan which is somewhat of an unusual situation in the way it came to light, but there is nothing unusual about an older system and an older city having older infrastructure and older lead pipes and the quality of water being demeaned by the infrastructure system itself,” commented Cuomo, who had firsthand knowledge of broken urban infrastructure as HUD Secretary. “So even if you have a quality water source, by the time you run it through a municipal water system that may be aging, you may contaminate the water source through that infrastructure itself.”
It’s not clear what immediately triggered his focus – perhaps the optics of Flint, or the latest contamination leak at Indian Point Nuclear Plant, and for many years, Long Island was shown to have disproportionately high rates of breast cancer – but to his credit, last week, Cuomo launched water quality initiatives statewide,
The governor, speaking on Feb 18 at Stony Brook, specifically focused on Long Island, saying, “Long Island is especially sensitive when it comes to the environment. Basically for geographic reasons, the sound on one side, the ocean on the other. The geography of the island itself and the way the aquifers run, it makes the island the most environmentally sensitive part of the state of New York, just from a systems analysis… Right here on Long Island, we have several issues that are unique to Long Island and the sustainability of our water systems.”
The issue of salt water intrusion has been an issue on the Great Neck Peninsula for decades, as has the plume of contamination spewing from the former Sperry Rand (then Unisys, then Lockheed) site in Lake Success.
Now there is concern about the Northrop Grumman plume which is about one mile by three miles, which “is traveling and it is problematic,” he said, adding that chemicals which are known today to be harmful were not necessarily identified years ago, and that there are likely chemicals which have yet to be identified as harmful.
Rather than address issues piecemeal as individual situations, Cuomo is proposing “an island-wide, top shelf study of the groundwater, of the aquifer, let’s find out what’s going on, let’s find out if there is saltwater intrusion, where its coming from, if there is chemical contamination, where is it coming from?” The study will be conducted in concert with the US Geological Society, County of Nassau, County of Suffolk, Stony Brook. It will be, the Governor said, “The best, most extensive study ever done to make sure we know what is going on with the groundwater.”
The state will fund the cost, estimated at $6 million, “but it is well worth it,” Cuomo said.
“The aquifer on Long Island is a priceless asset and we want to protect it, and part of protecting it is understanding what’s going on with it and understanding what’s going on it with it right now… Again, these drinking water quality issues are not just on Long Island, they tend to be more sensitive on Long Island but they are statewide and they are nationwide.”
“Individually each of these announcements are critically important, Collectively this is a holistic approach and a game changer for the protection and sustainability of our water supply,” Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said. “Water resources have been neglected for too long. This signifies a new prioritization of water protection which is woefully needed and joyfully accepted!”
Nancy Kelley, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, said, “The Nature Conservancy applauds Governor Cuomo for his continued commitment to conserving New York’s water – one of our most critical resources. Long Island’s economy, quality of life, public health and environment are inextricably linked to our water, and a comprehensive study of our aquifer and threats to water quality will allow us to build on work underway to address nitrogen pollution, and develop a full suite of solutions to achieve sustainability for future generations. We look forward to continuing our work with the state, local governments, and many other partners on water quality issues here on Long Island and throughout New York.”
What is needed, though, is a more holistic approach to safe drinking water – involving reusing wastewater through state-of-the-art treatment systems, to yield water that could be used for irrigation, cooling and other industrial purposes and reduce the demand on groundwater; replacing aging infrastructure with more efficient systems, tapping rain water with barrels (as the Town of North Hempstead started to do).
Indeed, it’s remarkable to visit the island nation of Bermuda which has no groundwater at all, and see how roofs are designed to capture rainwater, purifying it as it moves through calcium.
Our economy – our society – is still organized as if resources were bountiful, if not unlimited and cheap.
But the costs of ignoring the realities and investing in sustainable solutions is incalculable.
Flint is just beginning to find out how much the tab will be for trying to save $5 million on water: the estimated cost could run as much as $1.5 billion. But that’s just to replace the miles of piping – as it is, housing values have gone to negative, people couldn’t escape Flint even if they wanted to. But that figure does not include how much more school bills will be to accommodate children who will be impacted intellectually and physically, and the loss to individuals, families, communities and a nation over a lifetime of lost potential and productivity.
Penny wise. Pound foolish.
Flint, Michigan, didn’t just bring the issue of aging infrastructure to the fore. It raises the issue of government. Flint’s state and county officials – electeds and bureaucrats – didn’t just hide the information about lead poisoning and Legionnaire’s Disease, they contributed to the spread of debilitating, even fatal illness. It raises issues about how we are being indoctrinated to prioritize: cut taxes or rebuild and replace aging infrastructure and invest in sustainable technologies.
The additional lesson of Flint is that government isn’t inherently good or bad, but the people we elect, appoint, hire – their judgments and policies – do matter.
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