By Sarah Meyland Sierra Club Member and Associate Professor, NY Institute of Technology
The oldest and most pristine aquifer formation beneath Long Island is the Lloyd Aquifer. The Lloyd formation is over 50 million years old and the water in it is as much as 8,000 years old, nearly as old as the last ice age. Because the Lloyd Aquifer is at the bottom of the sequence of aquifer layers located beneath Long Island, it usually takes decades for water to reach and replenish it. And it takes thousands of years for water in the Lloyd to slowly migrate to the coastline where it discharges into the Atlantica Ocean or Long Island Sound.
For the past 20 years, the Lloyd Aquifer has been protected by a state imposed “moratorium” on drilling any new wells into it unless they are for use by “coastal communities.” Coastal communities are areas vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. When sea water moves inland, taking the place of fresh water in the aquifers, this is saltwater intrusion. By this process, water can eventually become too salty to drink and the affected community must find a new source of water. The chloride content of sea water is about 19,000 parts per million (ppm). It only takes 250 ppm of chlorides to make water undrinkable under the New York State drinking water standards.
Taking too much fresh water out of the groundwater system by overpumping can cause saltwater intrusion. Without the force of the fresh water to hold out the ocean, it moves into the aquifer contaminating it. As the smallest of the three primary aquifers, the Lloyd contains only 9% of the total freshwater on Long Island. Significant pumping can easily produce saltwater intrusion in the Lloyd. For over 20 years, it has been accepted policy that the Lloyd must be protected and preserved for those coastal areas that need it now or in the future.
In 2006, the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) tried to be the first noncoastal community in decades to gain access to the pristine Lloyd waters. A SCWA well field in the East Northport area of Huntington is seriously polluted by a number of chemicals including nitrates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and perchlorates. Nitrate levels are high because too much raw sewage from septic tanks is being discharged into the ground. Nitrates cause blue-baby syndrome. VOCs are those toxic chemicals you read so much about. Many are potential carcinogens. They come from spills, industrial discharges and consumer products such as paint thinner or nail polish. Perchlorate is officially identified as a derivative of rocket fuel. Scientists speculate it may also be produced by the breakdown of certain fertilizer products. Perchlorates are linked to thyroid disease and possibly prostate cancer.
At the East Northport well field site, near the VA Hospital, SCWA wanted to drill a new Lloyd well. From that well, they proposed to take very pure water and “blend” it with water from a closed well high in nitrates. By dilution, the nitrate level can be dropped below the drinking water standard and then the water is sold back to the customers.
Environmental groups opposed the SCWA plan, arguing that SCWA was not faced with an emergency or extreme hardship - - the legal standard that would allow them to use the Lloyd. If SCWA were to succeed in their efforts, it would likely open the door for more water suppliers to enter and ultimately over-pump this fragile water source. This would ruin the oldest and cleanest water remaining on Long Island.
The alternative solution was to treat and remove the high nitrates from the water rather than seek the cheapest way out.
The DEC supported SCWA efforts to gain access to the Lloyd, so it was an uphill battle for the groups trying to protect the Lloyd and the public’s interest in a sustainable water supply- the presiding DEC judge recommended to the DEC Commissioner that permission be granted to SCWA. It was therefore with some surprise that activists learned in 2007 that DEC Commissioner Grannis had decided against SCWA and denied request for extraordinary hardship exemption to the moratorium.
In 2008, the NY Legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of the Lloyd Aquifer for drinking water storage, thereby ending a plan by NYC to inject drinking water into the aquifer for use as an emergency source of drinking water.