Last week, the Nassau County legislature voted to tinker with the membership of the county’s Water Resources Board, a forgotten advisory group that hasn’t met in a decade. This board has no power, no staffing, no funding, but is now being used as a prop in a press release war against New York City, which plans to reopen some old water wells in Queens County over the next few years. It’s a huge missed opportunity. The WRB could be a critical mechanism to finally create the comprehensive planning, iron-clad protections and standards for management and equipment that our irreplaceable aquifers need.
Forty different water supply districts manage Nassau County’s drinking water, including 19 town-created special districts, 12 village water departments, three private corporations, two state-created public authorities and one town water department. It’s no way to manage this “sole source” of drinking water.
Back when this unplanned patchwork was cobbled together, there frequently was opposition. When one town water district was created in 1922, questions were raised at the state Water Control Board about why the small housing developments didn’t connect to nearby existing systems, and why mains were being run to some off-the-beaten-path farms. Several years later, one of the founding water commissioners was busted for running a 1,500-gallon still and bootleg rum operation on one of those farms. Every district has a story, and some of them aren’t very tidy.
The unincorporated areas outside the villages were carved up as part of a white collar network and farm system for Republican attorneys, insurance brokers and engineers. It was sold to the public as “local control,” but for years, every water district commissioner in Nassau County was a Republican, and even the private companies running water systems were plugged into the GOP.
Managing the resource and long-term planning was not a big part of the program.
It took public shaming by the War Department in 1942 to get Nassau County’s water districts to finally agree to creating pipeline interconnections between districts, as a wartime civil defense protection.
While the districts have always been good at building neighborhood-level physical infrastructure and the mechanics of pumping water to homes and businesses, the blinders of “local control” and lack of coordination backfired as the county population neared a million people.
During the post-war build-out, the county’s central belt suffered serious water pressure and drought problems. One day in 1951, Levittown went four hours with no water at all, and for a few summers some districts banned lawn and garden sprinkling. Water pressure became a political issue. In 1954, the Hempstead Town Board stepped in and directed that millions of dollars worth of new wells be sunk, starting in Levittown, East Meadow, West Hempstead and Uniondale.
By 1953, a consensus began growing that Nassau County needed central water planning to ensure adequate supplies into the future, and to provide a mechanism for control in case of an emergency or disaster.
By the early 1960s, the Nassau GOP calculated that it would do fine with a Nassau County Water Authority.
Legislation passed the county legislature, passed the State Senate once and the Assembly four times. The strongest opposition came from New York City. The story of how this legislation came to be dead by the 1970s would make a pretty good political science class curriculum.
By the 1980s, some planners, water advocates and legislators argued that the Water Resources Board could be juiced up to provide the guidance and regulation needed to keep the water safe. Instead, it withered.
Some water district commissioners are conscientious experts. That isn’t the point. Most of Nassau has grown together. One party no longer dominates civic life. We need to make things work not for 1922, but for 2022.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. Email: email@example.com