Archive for Sustainability

Sharing the Cost to Renovate Our Island Water Distribution Network

February 21, 2020

The Water Company is planning a major renovation of the water distribution system on Fishers Island.  This multi-year, multi-million-dollar infrastructure project has to be undertaken given the age and condition of the island’s network of cast iron water mains, many of which date back to the early 1900s.

This article is an overview of the investment required for this project, plans for financing that investment and the Company’s review of its rate structure.*

Project investment and borrowing.  Based on preliminary estimates, the investment required for the renovation will be substantial.  For example, the cost of detailed engineering plans for a network of replacement water mains is estimated at over $1.0 million.  Phase 1 of actual construction, a new trunk main running west from the wells at Middle Farms to the intersection of Montauk and Oriental Avenues, is estimated at around $4.0 million.

The Water Company expects to finance the renovation by borrowing.  It plans to do so in several tranches of loans over a period of years as the design and construction phases progress.  In parallel stages, the Company will have to increase its revenues in order to finance the borrowing costs, mainly interest and principal payments, over the life of the loans.

The Fair Allocation Issue.  Given the size of the impending financing costs for the renovation, the Water Company is considering whether its rate structure allocates the costs of the water system fairly between water customers, who benefit from potable water services, and property owners, who benefit from the fire protection infrastructure.

This allocation issue was debated in many water districts during the 20th century as water systems originally built exclusively for potable water were made more robust for fire protection or, conversely, systems built for fire protection were adapted to add potable water services.  While charging customers based on water consumption is fairly straightforward, charging for fire protection infrastructure that is used sporadically in emergencies is less so.  That infrastructure includes hydrants, standby water reservoirs for surges in water demand during a fire, supplemental high lift pressure pumps, and over-sized water mains to deliver higher volumes of water than needed for potable water services.

In the end, the water industry developed an allocation formula, now widely accepted, for estimating a water utility’s costs that are fire-related based on fire demand vs total utility demand for water.  Applying the industry formula to Fishers Island, 70% of the Water Company’s revenue would come from water customers. The remaining 30% would come from property owners via property taxes allocated to the Fire District, which leases the fire protection infrastructure from the Water Company.

The Company’s current revenue split between these two sources is 93% from water customers and 7% from property owners via the fire infrastructure lease.  In effect, according to the industry formula, water customers are providing a 23% subsidy to property owners for fire protection infrastructure.  Year-round water customers pay a disproportionate amount of this subsidy.

The Goal.  The Water Company has not made a final determination on how to change its rate structure to ensure that it has funds when needed to finance each phase of the distribution system renovation.  The goal will be to raise Company revenues, in stages over time, in a way that spreads the costs the entire water system more in line with industry standards.  The process will involve migrating the rate structure by weighting rate increases more toward property owners.

This could mean, for example, increasing incrementally charges to the Fire District under its infrastructure lease, leading to increases in property taxes to fund the resulting increases in the District’s annual budgets. However, the Fire District faces other budget considerations, such as financing a proposed firehouse renovation and housing a paid professional.

In any case, the Water Company is continuing its discussions with independent professional advisors, the Public Service Commission and the Fire District as a matter of priority given the critical nature of the renovation project.  Fishers Island is not alone.  Fresh water for daily use and water at high pressure from neighborhood hydrants have been taken for granted in water districts across the United States for decades.  But water main networks over 100 years old are now in many ways obsolete.  Across the country, water districts are facing this issue and an estimated $1 trillion of renovation costs.

The good news is that, by spreading the financing costs over time and across water customers and property owners, the community can support the renovation.  Moreover, with modern materials and engineering, renovated water distribution infrastructure is highly cost-effective: it is easy to maintain, reliable and can serve for another 100 years.

Tom Siebens, Director
Fishers Island Water Works Corporation

*This is the second in a series of articles about the renovation of the water distribution infrastructure on Fishers Island.  See “Renovating the Island’s Water Distribution System”, January 27, 2020, posted on and included in the February 2020 Fog Horn e-newsletter.

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FI Drinking Water Resources: Study of Middle Farms Pond

By Professor Pete Raymond
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
May 22, 2019

Clean and sufficient water is an important part of any community’s well-being. As stated in the Fishers Island Watershed Protection Standards set by the Suffolk County Health Department, our community relies on “an interrelated fragile system of ground and surface water sources for public water supply.” Currently, we rely on a mixture of groundwater from wells and surface water from Barlow Pond. The ponds, in particular, Middle Farms Pond, are also connected to the groundwater we rely on. That is, water from the ponds flows directly into the groundwater aquifers that are used by our community.

Historically, the Island started by consuming untreated surface water. In the early 1900s water was sourced from Barlow Pond and into a distribution system without any treatment. In the 1920s a water treatment facility was built and a number of the other Island ponds, including Middle Farms, were connected to Barlow in order to augment Barlow during times of water shortage. In the 1960s two groundwater wells were placed in the Middle Farm Flats to the west of Middle Farms pond, with additional wells and a groundwater treatment facility added in the 1980s. Currently, via the new well filtration plant, the groundwater wells provide water to the Island year round. Reserve capacity can be provided with treated surface pond water from Barlow.

Google Earth image showing algal bloom in Middle Farms Pond during the early summer of 2016.

In 2016 the Northeast was hit with a major drought. During the drought, I had an active project on the Connecticut River and many of the streams of Connecticut witnessed their lowest flow in 80 years of record. This was a historic one hundred year drought. The Water Company saw signs of an algal bloom at Middle Farms Pond. In fact, the algal bloom could be seen by space from a May aerial from Google Earth. Due to the bloom, the Water Company restricted recreational use of the pond and asked me to do a preliminary evaluation of Middle Farms Pond. During the summer of 2018, I deployed an instrument, and with help from the Water Company took water samples for a number of months. I also reviewed the information made available to me from past measurements and studies. My more detailed preliminary report can be found here:

During 2018 there were no indications that Middle Farms was in, or near, bloom conditions. Oxygen and nutrient measurements were not consistent with an algal bloom, nor was the pond visually impacted as it was in 2016. My initial assessment, informed from some depth profiles of oxygen, is there is likely a large amount of organic matter, with its associated nutrients stored in the sediments of Middle Farms. This organic matter has probably accrued slowly over the past decades due to inputs of nutrients from the human activities in the watershed and with rainfall. During the summer, as water temperatures warm, this organic matter is decomposed by natural communities of bacteria and the nutrient associated with the organic matter are released. Since Middle Farms is shallow it does not thermally stratify like many deeper lakes, and these nutrients can easily and quickly diffuse into the surface waters where they support summer algal growth. During most years it appears this growth is moderate. During drought conditions, however, the water temperatures of the pond become higher due to a lower lake volume and increased sunlight. This likely leads to greater organic matter decomposition and better conditions for algal growth. Furthermore, droughts are also associated with optimal sunlight due to less frequent cloud cover that can also stimulate aquatic plant growth.

In addition to warmer water temperatures and more sunlight that stimulate algal growth from nutrients stored in the lake sediments, algal growth can be stimulated by other factors. Other potential sources of nutrients to the pond include bird waste, fertilizer and septic input from properties within the watershed, and atmospheric deposition. Furthermore, any other processes that alter the water balance of the pond and lead to low summer water levels will exacerbate the problem. Fortunately, the low level of recreational swimming does not likely have any significant impact on lake nutrient concentrations or volume.

The ponds of Fishers are an asset. They are an integral component of our water resources. They are also unique ecosystems, offering great habitat for aquatic, terrestrial and even marine organisms. As others have noted, however, the ponds of Fishers Island are also fragile. As part of my recommendations, which are expanded in the online preliminary report, I urge the Water Company to continue to understand how these ponds function, and to work with the Fishers Island community to ensure that the ponds will have an adequate amount of clean water to support the community and the organisms that rely on them.

Middle Farms Pond November 17 Photo Credit: Jane T. Ahrens

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Restoring Middle Farms Pond

Middle Farms Pond has become contaminated with elevated levels of nitrates, turbidity, bacteria and algae. Although the causes are not yet clear, human activities, including potential septic leeching and fertilizer run-off, as well as boating, fishing and swimming are all potential contributing factors.

The risks are serious. For example, nitrates can cause algae blooms. While not all algae blooms are toxic, some produce a type of toxin called microcystis that can cause serious liver damage under certain conditions.

Fishers Island Water Works Corporation owns the pond and is responsible for monitoring its quality. Under the Fishers Island Water Protection Standards adopted by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services in 1997, we are also responsible for monitoring compliance with land use restriction that apply to the surrounding primary watershed.

To start the process of restoring the health of the pond, we are placing it off limits to the public. Various information and warning notices will be posted around the pond.

The absence of human activity will facilitate testing the pond water to identify the causes of contamination and target efforts to eliminate them. We have already sent notices to surrounding landowners, requesting their help in identifying potential sources of contamination in the watershed, particularly on ground sloping toward the pond and any level areas within150 yards of the shore. Fertilizers, pesticides, septic tanks and fuel storage tanks are among the possible hazards. Earlier this year we welded shut an access point where tank trucks were tapping into the pond with potentially contaminated hoses.

Closing Middle Farms Pond to boating will address another threat: the potential introduction of the invasive Zebra mussel. This fingernail-size mussel can attach itself to a boat or paddleboard that is used in another body of water and then used in Middle Farms Pond. There would be no way to eradicate the bivalve from the pond once that happens.

By removing sources of contamination and avoiding a mussel infestation, the pond could have water that is potable with little filtration within a few years. Although we are moving to produce more water from wells, preserving both Middle Farms and Barlow Ponds as back-up reservoirs is an important part of our strategy for assuring ample water supply despite the uncertainties of climate change. During droughts in the 1960s, for example, water was pumped from Middle Farms Pond to Barlow Pond for filtration and distribution into the island’s water mains.

Everyone’s understanding and cooperation with this initiative will be very much appreciated. We know that Middle Farms Pond has been enjoyed by boaters, fishermen and swimmers. Yet, we strongly believe that conserving this natural resource is part of responsible environmental stewardship and in the best interest of the water supply for the entire island community.Please feel free to contact company President, Chris Finan, or Water Superintendent, Chad Mrowka, at 631-788-7251 with any questions.

Please feel free to contact company President, Chris Finan, or Water Superintendent, Chad Mrowka, at 631-788-7251 with any questions.

Fishers Island Water Works Corporation

October 22, 2017

Middle Farms Pond November 17 Photo Credit: Jane T. Ahrens

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