Are we running out of water? -August 2008

by: Kate Dellas

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

As the earth’s most abundant resource, it is easy to take water for granted, turning the tap whenever we wish. Jogging to Surfside or biking out to Madaket on hot summer days, we stop at perfectly-situated water fountains to recharge – free of charge. These fountains become our checkpoints dotting all the major bike paths on the island, and we look forward to their presence each time we set out to run, bike, stroll or skate.

Samantha Gray takes a break at the Madaket Bike Path water fountain. Wannacomet Water serves fountains at five locations: Main Street in front of the Pacific Club building, Milestone Rotary, Surfside Bike Path, Mill Hill Park on Prospect Street and the Madaket Bike Path.

So whom should we be thanking for this cool convenience? Here on Nantucket we rely on groundwater to provide our drinking water supply. This supply is tapped from the island’s underground aquifer – created by glacial activity – and existing as a lens beneath the earth’s surface.

Rainfall naturally recharges the aquifer, and the island’s sandy surface collects water like a sponge. Roughly 43 inches of annual rainfall promotes this recharge, and the team at the Wannacomet Water Company draws substantial quantities of water from two public wellfields to supply the island.

“The purifying quality of the sand that the rainwater filters through is incredible, just like a slow sand filter,” says Wannacomet Water Company general manager Bob Gardner.

“It’s a rare combination of materials that the glacier left. The real challenge is to protect that unbelievable water quality.”

With no alternative sources, the EPA deemed Nantucket a sole-source aquifer in 1984. This designation recognized the island’s reliance on groundwater, prompting the management and protection of our water supply. Today, our situation remains much the same, and we approach the water issue with sustainability in mind.

“Quantity is not the issue here on Nantucket. We have plenty of water,” says Gardner. “It is quality that we must protect.”

The first step is awareness. Recently the “green” trend has trickled into many aspects of our lives, changing our attitudes toward mitigating damage to the environment. Water appears at the forefront, and we must approach our own water situation with shades of “green” in mind.

The Nantucket Land Council is one such group raising awareness about threats to groundwater quality. “It’s pretty simple,” says executive director Cormac Collier, “More development brings more threats to the water supply. Continued support for open-space protection is the number-one way to offset threats to the water supply.”

As infrastructure carves up once natural landscapes, we are forced to consider the detrimental and often irreversible effects on our water supply. Paved roads, parking lots, patios and even manicured lawns interfere with the natural rainfall recharge cycle, limiting the pervious surfaces that allow water to sink in and supply our aquifer.

Not to mention the pollutants involved. As rainfall hits these impervious paved surfaces, it collects pollutants and runoff eventually reaches our ponds, streams, harbors, and even our groundwater supply.

While Nantucket’s coarse-grain sandy soil welcomes the rapid storage of water, it does not differentiate between nutrients and chemicals that also filter in. Our own actions determine the quality of our water supply, so before paving over a natural vegetative buffer, think twice.

“All the developers have realized that having a good water supply is good for business, so it’s in everyone’s best interest. The cooperation is great,” says Gardner. “People on Nantucket are generally environmentally-conscious, and there are plenty of organizations that get the word out.”

“We have a lot of water,” adds Collier, “definitely enough to supply the existing population on Nantucket, but we have to be aware of future build-up. As more people come here, more water is used. That two-week period in August raises issues with crowds at their highest and wells at their lowest.”

Gardner can relate. The aquifer provides drinking water for around 7,000 permanent residents. That number soars in the summer months, peaking at around 27,000 thirsty summer residents. How does Wannacomet handle the influx of summer crowds?

“I don’t sleep,” jokes Gardner. “Our responsibility at Wannacomet Water is the ability to deliver the water out of the ground. When the demand is so great in August, we sometimes have to ask for restrictions because we don’t have enough storage capacity. We can supply drinking water needs just fine, but irrigation really strains our wells. Those last two weeks in August get a little dicey.”

And while the team at Wannacomet Water works to keep those taps running, we must aid their efforts. Instead of expecting others to absorb our impact, we can all do a little to change a lot.

“The landscapers and irrigation people are great. They work with us to try to minimize the impact,” says Gardner. “You really rely on people’s cooperation, and for the most part, people cooperate. They realize it’s the right thing to do. You need to maintain reserves for fire protection. Overall, people are very cooperative and understanding.”

As the island population swells this August, be conscious of your water use. Kick any wasteful habits, and practice the wise use of water. Limit the watering of lawns and gardens. Embrace the tide toward green landscaping. Take shorter showers, and turn off the faucet or the hose when not in use. Fix leaks. Run washing machines and dishwashers only when full.

The population on Nantucket continues to grow, increasing the quantity of water the island consumes each year. As we get bigger and bigger, it becomes our responsibility to be conscious of our water supply and the potential threats to groundwater, adapting our own lifestyles just a bit to ensure a healthy water supply.

“We do some educational campaigns. Awareness is the biggest thing. Regulation is probably the most difficult thing,” says Collier. “We just sent 13 landscapers off to an organic accreditation program. We can’t force people into anything, but we can educate them and trust they will make the right choice.”

Nantucketers seem in tune with their environment, conscious of their impact on the land, and of course, the water. Protecting our water supply involves some trust, and we rely on each other to make environmentally-conscious choices. While the Wannacomet Water Company, Nantucket Land Council and many others serve as watchdogs of this water supply, we must embrace the “green” tide rolling in when it comes to water.

For more information on ways to green your lifestyle and conserve our water supply, visit the Nantucket Land Council’s webpage, Catch. Wannacomet Water Company’s “Only Tap Water Delivers,” on PlumTV. It is time to be aware of our water supply here on Nantucket, and to sip, refresh and refuel with a touch more appreciation and a whole lot more awareness.

Madaket’s problem

With 30 miles of chilly ocean sitting between us and our nearest neighbors, Nantucket’s water supply appears removed from many potential threats.

“The nice thing is I don’t have to worry about the next town over doing something that contaminates our water supply,” says Wannacomet Water Company general manage Bob Gardner.

And while this isolation does provide some comfort, on-island threats to our aquifer remain. Madaket residents rely on private wells, rather than Wannacomet’s public supply, and issues of contamination have plagued their water situation for years. The lens of the aquifer thins when you get out to Madaket, and saltwater intrusion can contaminate these private water supplies.

“Madaket is different,” Gardner says. “The interface is very narrow between salt and fresh water, and it wouldn’t take much to upset the balance. The aquifer is a funny thing, and we’re learning more about it all the time. Our water mains stop now at Fisher’s Landing, but we’ve thought about extending those mains out to Madaket. It is a possibility to consider for the future, especially for fire protection.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s designation of Nantucket as a sole source aquifer really resonates when considering the situation in Madaket. With no reasonable alternatives, many Madaket residents rely on bottled water and still struggle with showers and faucets that spray brackish liquid.

Wannacomet Water provides some relief, allowing people to visit their self-serve water supply. Right outside their offices on Milestone Road, Wannacomet offers a water pick-up service where community members can stop by and stock up on water.

“Out here in our courtyard we have a self-serve honor system. Throw 50 cents a gallon down the shoot, and come pick up your water,” says Gardner. “We have people that come from Madaket and Cisco weekly. There are some folks that have a van, and I drive one week and pick up the water for everyone, and the next week my neighbor does. So people come and take advantage of this.”

It is comforting to see the community coming together, embracing solutions on our faraway island. In the heat of another Island summer, it is important to remain conscious of water use, and act as a steward of our environment here on Nantucket, protecting our water to ensure a sustainable supply for the future.

Kate Dellas is a rising senior at Middlebury College and editorial assistant at Nantucket Today.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.