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A Browner Lawn for the Greater Good

Wed, 08/03/2022 - 18:31


The imposition of a California-style water emergency here might be a shock to some people but it should not be. Hotter and drier summers have long been expected as part of climate change. At the same time, growth on the South Fork has been relentless. In East Hampton Town alone, the resident population increased by about a third between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. During that time, too, the demand for water for lawns and nonnative landscapes soared. As a result, the system may not be able to pump enough to assure sufficient water for firefighting and other critical services, including emergency medical care.

With so much dead wood on the South Fork as the result of a devastating pine beetle invasion, the risk of a catastrophic forest fire that could destroy some unknown number of houses is dangerously high already. Without enough water pressure, it would be almost impossible for firefighters to contain it.

On Tuesday, the Suffolk County Water Authority told its customers in the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Southold, and parts of Shelter Island not to irrigate between midnight and 7 a.m., to stop all nonessential water use, and reduce shower times.

According to the water authority, the peak demand is in the early morning hours, when most properties’ irrigation timers are set to run. This nearly empties the supply tanks that keep the water mains pressurized — adequate water pressure is key to stopping structure and brush fires from getting out of control.

Eastern Long Island is not the only place in the Northeast enduring an abnormally dry summer. More than half of New England is rated “moderate drought” by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Within that, the area from southern New Hampshire to eastern Connecticut is in “severe drought.” This includes Boston all the way to Buzzards Bay, Mass., and inland nearly to Keene, N.H. Rainfall this summer has been below normal, though as the climate changes rapidly, what normal means anymore is open to guesses.

The water authority supply is not directly dependent on precipitation; deep wells reach into subsurface aquifers, where we are assured there is enough for the foreseeable future. The problem is that in drought and near-drought conditions, the demand to keep lawns unnaturally green leaps upward. Looking to the week ahead, the National Weather Service sees little relief, with just a chance of rain on Saturday, then again on Tuesday. This will be not enough to satisfy property owners’ wishes for the lush grass, hedges, and gardens that are a signifier of the good life here on the South Fork.

The Water Authority says that about half of summertime demand comes from automatic sprinklers. Credits of up to $50 are available as an incentive for buying “smart” watering systems, rain sensors, and leak detectors. It offers $10 credits for thrifty showerheads and faucet aerators, but these are, if you will forgive us, a drop in the bucket. Protecting the supply comes down to individuals’ willingness to accept a browner lawn for the greater good — we’ll believe that when we see it South of the Highway.

As the population increased here, so did the demand for water. Though some people inside and outside of government may have seen this coming, the region was not prepared for the new reality. Long-term strategies aimed at reducing water use must be found.


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