When the wells run dry

Posted 12/31/69

A looming environmental crisis, both locally and across the country, will center upon sources and reliable supplies of water. Clean water. 

Right now, we routinely have local disputes over …

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When the wells run dry


A looming environmental crisis, both locally and across the country, will center upon sources and reliable supplies of water. Clean water. 

Right now, we routinely have local disputes over land, land use and quality of life.  And nowadays such disputes can unfortunately flow over into disputes that reference religion, taxes, immigration and all collateral matters rather than on clean and reliable water. 

Disputes over essential natural resources such as clean water have the potential to pit town against town, neighbor against neighbor.  

Developers and their consultants must take the adverse environmental impacts of their projects seriously, particularly where our towns are confronted with proposals that are certain to stress our available water supply and related infrastructure. 

We are currently fortunate to live where clean, safe water is available just by turning on the tap. We have grown complacent with the feeling that water is an infinite resource. It’s rare to go through water restrictions, and even when we experience a warning to conserve, it’s just about washing our cars or watering the lawn. 

Yet, private wells have no restrictions on consumption. We turn on the tap and let it run: for a minute, for an hour or for a day.  We waste.  Even when water comes from a public supply, we lose sight of where the water comes from, and we just assume it is safe, plentiful and infinite. 

When addressing water supply issues associated with new development projects, our representatives on planning, zoning and town boards should delve more deeply into water assumptions regarding both supply and use, proposed by development projects.  Facts here will matter.

From the source

We speak of aquifers with little or no understanding of where they are and how they replenish, and even how water molecules move through the subsurface. We ignore where most of us actually get our water—from groundwater and/or surface water such as ponds, lakes, rivers and streams—yet we direct treated wastewater to those same lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands that become our or someone else’s drinking water.

We look at wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) as a cure-all for what goes down the drain. We forget that the “T” is for treatment, not purification. So, we take potable water and return treated but non-potable water to other water bodies—water that contains nitrogen, phosphorus and quite possibly viruses and bacteria, antibiotics, and residual medication.  

While the viral and bacterial load and level of other contaminants might be low, dilution might not always be the solution. We have the technology to treat wastewater to current potable standards, but we never require or even ask any developer to go one step further than the minimum required by the state. And now we hear about “emerging contaminants”—PFAS or PFOS (per- and polyflourinated substances)—and label them as “forever chemicals,” with drinking water limits in parts-per-trillion concentrations. 

The challenge for boards

Current standards are always subject to change, mandating more financial commitments to treatment and potability requirements.

Yet our boards continue to permit construction without verifying if the stated water requirement and WWTPs or package plants (pre-fabricated waste water treatment plants for small communities or on individual properties) are sized properly.  

Applicants use the number of bedrooms from the original plans to determine the water requirements and wastewater effluent. This is the standard criteria established by the DEC.  It reflects use in a community where people leave home to go to work and school. 

Our area is different.  People vacation here, so most of the time they are “home.” Many of the newer communities are self-sufficient, with their own stores and other amenities. So the people who live here are not the typical commuters.  This skews the DEC calculation and significantly understates the actual use. It is the lowest threshold, and too often does not reflect a water use that is even close to reality. 

Well output or public water supply, and WWTP or other waste water volume, is calculated before anyone moves in.  Well tests are usually done in the off-season, and might not be accurate for the rest of the year.  

Frequently, after the water requirement calculations have been performed, site plans are modified and buildouts are planned.  Any site plan modification or proposed buildout that adds bedrooms should require new water and wastewater calculations. Unfortunately, they don’t. 

To complicate matters even more, applicants often describe the development in terms of units, with little or no reference to the number of bedrooms or how the undetermined open space on the plans might be built out. Yet the calculations for water are still based on the number of bedrooms.

This makes it difficult for the planning board and members of the community to verify the impact a new project may have before issuing a special use permit.  Boards should require a standard format for submittals so that all projects are clear and can be evaluated based on the same standards.

Our building departments have no way of knowing if interior walls have been added after a certificate of occupancy is issued. They will not know of or be able to prevent the construction of another living space or apartment as an accessory use for the primary residence.

Let’s face facts: we all know that assumptions are rarely accurate. Our boards and consultants must demand a greater level of transparency from all applicants before granting approval to proceed. These are uncomfortable, but completely reasonable and important questions that impact everyone.

Our elected and appointed boards, the decision makers, seem to feel they must ignore the lowest common denominator—the number of people. The greatest anticipated number of people who will be using this system is a more accurate estimate for water consumption and wastewater effluent.  

No proposal brought before any planning board will use population as a baseline. Using the actual volume of water required sheds a completely different light on the multiple impacts large-scale development will have. 

Water down the drain

With the county population tripling between May and October from roughly 79,000 to 250,000 people—and some villages and hamlets increasing almost 10 times their winter population—the water use is staggering. 

The DEC and USGS state that on average, each person uses 82 gallons or between 80 and 100 gallons of water per day.  This is a more accurate baseline for water use. We use over 20 million gallons of water every day.  

To put this in perspective, a good-size bathtub holds about 40 gallons of water. Imagine over 500,000 bathtubs filled with water every day. That is just an estimate of our water use every day.  This does not take into account the summer season with swimming pools, sprinklers, lawns or gardens consuming even more. 

Since all new development must be built for use throughout the year, what will the impact be on the water supply if or when this seasonal population increase becomes permanent? Sullivan County's population has already grown since COVID.  Many people who were once second-home owners are now primary residents. Many more decided our county was the perfect place to call their new home.

Our town and county boards and planning boards and their consultants must carefully evaluate the reality of water usage instead of relying on inaccurate and often contradictory summary assessments by applicants and their paid consultants. 

They must evaluate the cumulative impact new projects will have, not only on existing use but also how these new projects will affect each other and the future ability to build a sustainable community. 

An accurate water-use approach would use maximum occupancy, so that every development is evaluated in the same manner and to the same standard.  

All local and county boards need to carefully and methodically examine these plans and related documents and aggressively demand transparency from the developers regarding the construction build-outs and expansion. While they may not be able to ask how many people will live there, they can raise the standards, universally, for all future development.  

System failure

Systems rarely fail with the lowest impact.  Failure occurs when a system is under continued excessive stress.  An undersized WWTP will not be able to handle significantly increased volume.  Wetlands, streams and lakes will be contaminated.  Wells will pull sediment and contaminants from the surrounding soil requiring costly filtration. Wells will go dry.  A failure in water consumption and effluent estimates will contribute to a system failure impacting communities in the future.

The next environmental conflict will be fought over water, an invaluable resource that we all need to protect. The boards need to carefully assess the facts.

Barbara Lerner is a Sullivan County resident, a business owner and a supporter of well planned, sustainable development.

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environment, water, sustainability, My View, Barbara Lerner, development


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  • Joannep

    Excellent article. Barbar Lerner always makes me think!

    Wednesday, August 2, 2023 Report this