Too Many People, Too Little Water

Our water supply is a closed system. Whatever collects in the aquifer from snow melt and rains in the spring has to last us all year. There’s a large reservoir and the western well fields, and several small rivers (streams really), and that’s pretty much it. About 6,000 to 8,000 private wells and 80 public ones constantly draw down the underground levels, and because there are no outside sources, it’s these underground lakes resting in stone or gravel beds that make it possible to live here.

How Much Is There?

You would think that there’s a simple formula somewhere that some responsible person has drawn up that could tell us how much and for how long. Add up the total resources on one side, list the consumers on the other, and figure out how many people are using how much water, per day, and you probably could predict how long the supply will last at any point during the year. The formula could also be used to estimate how many more people could safely be added to the side drawing down the supply—but that might be the problem. With a finite, annually replenished supply, there is a number beyond which the supply will not be able to keep up, and it’s apparently not in everyone’s best interest to make this information public.

Last year, Preserve Ramapo began looking for these numbers. At a public meeting in June, Donald Distante, manager of engineering at United Water told us that his company does indeed have those numbers, and he agreed to provide us with them. More than half a dozen follow-up phone calls and e-mails failed to pry the information from Mr. Distante or his company, an international corporation that is second in the world among those foreign nationals collecting water rights to resell to local users. Suez, United Water’s parent, is based in France and the company’s records are well beyond the reach of our Freedom of Information Act requests.

There was anecdotal evidence that the company was desperately seeking new sources of water to provide for the uncontrolled growth in Ramapo and the County. The public meeting at which Distante promised the numbers was about a new pipeline that will transfer water from Lake DeForest Reservoir to the western well fields of Ramapo that were reaching dangerously low levels at the end of the summer. The lower levels can cause all kinds of trouble including pressures too low for adequate firefighting and greater risk of well contamination. Water in parts of Hillcrest, for instance, turns brown at the end of the summer, and there is dangerously low pressure.

Besides the new reservoir pipeline, United Water announced its plans to open two gasoline-tainted wells, and to dig a new deep well that would tap an aquifer already used by many private wells. And there were the prospects that didn’t work out like the Suffern quarry and Ambry Pond. The company was clearly running against some kind of deadline to increase its resources.

Living on Borrowed Time

In June of this year, United Water company reps appeared at Suffern’s meeting of the Village Board (June 11) to try to purchase a million gallons a day from Suffern’s water company. The State had mandated an increase in the supply by June 16—an additional 1.4 million gallons per day to meet the current need.

We still had no idea how close we were to the gurgling sound of air in empty pipes, but the outward signs did not look encouraging.

Development, especially in Ramapo, is out of control. Consider the last two zoning changes made by Supervisor St. Lawrence and his board. There was the sextupling of the number of families permitted on traditional single-family lots in Monsey, and the permission of all schools to have the automatic right to build a dormitory building on the same site, sufficient in size to house all the students attending the school--no variances or reviews needed. The demand side of the equation was increasing geometrically.

We had learned from a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory study (Water Shortages, Development, and Drought in Rockland County, NY) that if there were two consecutive drought seasons in Rockland, the aquifer would never recover. The authors of the study, Bradfield Lyon, Nicholas Christie-Blick, and Yekaterina Gluzberg did something that United Water and the local planning boards never do—they pointed to overdevelopment as an obvious cause of the problem.

In an interview, Dr. Christie-Blick told Preserve Ramapo, "[Dr.] Brad Lyon and I predict stage III drought emergencies once every 3-5 years if there is no increase in population. If past patterns hold up, we’re living on borrowed time."

The problem is no more complicated than this. Say you’re ready to embark on a hike when you discover that you have 10 canteens but 15 scouts show up. Then 20, and then 25. At what point do you cancel the hike? And also of interest—what’s the liability of the troop leader who sets out without bothering to even count the canteens and the campers?

A Measuring Stick

The door at Suez (United Water) was barred, and the Ramapo Supervisor and his Board in all their public announcements about future needs seemed to assume there would be no problems at all paving over the rest of Ramapo with development.

We needed an expert, testifying in FOILable daylight, under oath, about water and population.

Then we discovered that the documentary evidence already existed in the record of New York’s Public Service Commission hearings concerning United Water’s request for a rate hike. Part of the procedure called for Dr. Daniel M. Miller’s direct testimony before the Public Service Commission last fall, and we could FOIL this document. Dr. Miller is in charge of water supplies at the Rockland Board of Health.

Not too far into the questioning (page 25 of the transcript), Dr. Miller was asked whether "the margin between demand and UWNY system supply capacity has implications for public health and safety."

He gave a list of consequences of loss of pressure due to decreased supply, including inadequate drinking water and water for sanitation. Loss of pressure also "can allow infiltration of bacteria-laden or otherwise contaminated surface water." Firefighting would also be adversely affected.

And then there was the key question (p. 25 line 12 of the testimony):

"Q>  In your professional opinion is UWNY consistently capable of delivering an adequate and reliable supply of water to Rockland County?"

"A> No."

The only qualification Dr. Miller offered to his answer was that "in terms of water quality" the supply being delivered was safe. However, he also explained, "In terms of safety issues that can result from an inadequate supply capacity, I would have to say that UWNY’s system-wide capabilities are marginal, and that there may already be safety issues."

Concerning long-term implications for the County, Dr. Miller explained, "Lack of adequate supply may soon result in severe limitations on growth and economic development in the County."

They put the stick in the tank and the answer came up "No"—United Water is not capable of delivering an adequate and reliable supply of water to Rockland County.

Now What?

In the "where do we go from here" department, there are a couple of obvious conclusions. First of all, there’s the lesson learned about who to ask and who to trust. Unfortunately, those in charge of land-use planning in Ramapo have shown little or no concern about future water needs. That’s not a good situation, especially seen in the light of the Columbia scientist’s "we are living on borrowed time."

And then there’s United Water. Their reluctance to deal honestly with the problem should not be surprising. When you consider their vested interest is embedded in a bottom line, you can understand their lack of candor and the refusal to warn planners. An additional caution is available in the company’s failure in Atlanta Georgia back in 2003 involving the largest water privatization in the U.S. They were asked to leave by the city.

More important, though, is the question what can residents do to try to get some control over this downward spiral. The simplest and most effective plan turns on a single word. When those responsible for the catastrophic planning in Ramapo (the Supervisor and his board) ask you for your continued support in this fall’s election, just offer the same answer given by Dr. Miller to the Public Service Commission—"No."

Michael Castelluccio
Preserve Ramapo