“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.- Norman Maclean
Living on the North Fork, we are always reminded about water. It surrounds us, protects us and affects our lives every day. It cools us in the summer, warms us in the winter and provides endless beauty and enjoyment in so many ways. But many of us don’t realize that we’re surrounded by water underneath the ground as well - a dark, cold river that flows unseen, year-round and holds the key to our future. Long Island contains three major bodies of water under the ground – these are our aquifers – geologic remnants from the Island’s early period of glacial formation. Three separate aquifer layers make up the Long Island system. In sequence from shallowest to deepest, the Long Island aquifers are: the Upper Glacial (100-150 ft.) the Magothy (500-1000 ft.) and the Lloyd (1500-2000ft.) All exist underneath the area of Long Island with the exception of the North Fork. Here we only have one – the Upper Glacial. It is our sole source of drinking water.
Our aquifers receive their fresh water from rainfall – on Long Island we average approximately 44 inches of precipitation a year. Of this, about half percolates into the ground and is recharged into the groundwater system. The remaining precipitation is either evaporated, used by plants, or runs off into our surrounding waters. In a pristine natural system, Long Island's groundwater would eventually reach the coast and flow out into the ocean and Sound, while being replenished with new precipitation. But our population constantly requires water to live; the 3 million people who live in Nassau and Suffolk Counties are completely dependent on groundwater for all of their freshwater needs.
Over 138 billion gallons of water is removed each year from beneath Nassau and Suffolk. As water recharges the system, it can also carry contaminants into the groundwater. Since it is the shallowest and closest to sources of runoff, the Upper Glacial aquifer is the most susceptible to contamination. The Magothy aquifer supplies over 90% of the water used in Nassau County and about 50% of all water used in Suffolk County. On the North Fork however, it’s all about the Upper Glacial. On average, the North Fork lies 10 feet above sea level making it fairly easy for runoff to vent out to our surrounding waterways. This process can take up to a century to complete, meaning that whatever we do today above the ground can stay with us for at least 50-100 years. Needless to say, this is a very important concept as it relates to sustainable winegrowing.
One of the major sources of groundwater contamination is nitrates. According to the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, testing is done periodically to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water. Years of research have determined that the acceptable level of nitrates in water should be no more than 10ppm. The natural level of nitrate in pristine well water from undeveloped tracts of land is almost always less than 3ppm. Nitrate in Long Island groundwater stems from a number of different land activities but overall the greatest contributor to nitrates is wastewater via septic tank/cesspool systems and home turf grass fertilizers. Clearly, development has taken its toll on our water supply.
Agriculture has played a role as well. Traditional row crop farming over the past 100 years has led to increased nitrate levels in many areas. Thirty years ago, most North Fork farmland sat over wells that contained levels of nitrate of 10ppm or higher. Many older residues, or “legacy materials” are also found - a remnant of our farming past. Today, only 10% of private wells exceed 10ppm of nitrate and 29% exceed the concentrations of 4 and 6 ppm – a testimony to better farming practices in use today and greater homeowner awareness of fertilizer use – but clearly a lot more needs to be done.
What does all of this have to with sustainable winegrowing? Quite a bit. Back in March, our Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing committee attended a presentation by Hydro-geologist Ronald Paulsen of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Groundwater Investigations Unit on the impacts of agriculture on the East End. For over 25 years, this county agency has been monitoring Suffolk’s groundwater for various chemicals. In fact, they were the first such agency in the United States to detect pesticides in groundwater in August 1979. These findings led to a longer term investigation which is still ongoing – much of which will be laid out in larger report sometime later this year.
In order to analyze the impacts on our aquifers, Suffolk County DHS has been studying samples from wells located across the county – from fallow farmland, housing developments and traditional agriculture. DHS also installed 29 monitoring wells at 9 different vineyard sites. Vineyard wells were tested annually with over 182 samples taken in just the last 5 years alone. The result is a great piece of scientific work providing us with some very useful information that will help us become better growers moving forward.
During the presentation, Mr. Paulsen explained that the vineyard well samples contained minute remnants of 12 agricultural chemicals. These materials were found in relatively trace amounts – (from 0.5 to 3 parts per billion) and 8 out of the 12 materials were considered “legacy materials” as they were never used for growing grapes. The 3 that remained can be attributed to grape growing (metalaxyl, imidacloprid, and simizine) but are also used by traditional agriculture, as well as homeowners on residential and commercial lawns. For reasons pertaining to their chemistry, these materials are particularly leachable. The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing group decided soon after this presentation to prohibit these three materials from our program; no vineyard that is certified by LISW can apply any of these chemicals on their property. Even though the levels were small, we felt it was better to safe and move forward without these materials.
The other aspect of the well testing presentation had to do with nitrate levels. In this part of the study the findings showed that vineyards were clearly on the right track. For one, the average level of nitrates found in the vineyard wells was a little over 4ppm – while the levels found in the traditional agricultural wells was over 13ppm – three times as high. These results were surprising even to the researchers who (when they began the study) believed internally that vineyard sites would be lucky to reduce nitrates below 6ppm. Clearly we have been doing something right in our vineyards. The combination of careful management, permanent cover crops and limited fertilizer use has resulted in a low environmental impact. The bottom line is vineyards have a lower nitrogen impact on our groundwater than a typical house on .5 acres of property (6ppm.) and only slightly higher than a pristine piece of fallow land. It’s anticipated that as vineyards continue to thrive, these levels will be reduced even further.
Our LISW program limits nitrogen application to 20 pounds per acre per year, and discourages fall applications to reduce leaching. It’s also true that vines don’t require a lot of nitrogen to grow and produce quality fruit. Most of what we remove from the vineyard – the fruit – is returned after pressing as compost. The rest of the vines’ parts - leaves, shoots and canes – are mostly all returned to the soil, leaving a small net nitrogen removal. As stewards of our land, we feel really good that we’ve made a difference.
For almost 40 years, Long Island vineyards have worked hard to develop unique and safe practices for producing quality wine grapes. Through the LISW program, East End vineyards and wineries have endeavored to create our own definition of sustainable viticulture and we want to ensure the sustained agricultural use of these lands for many more generations. LISW formed with the purpose of trying to make our world a better place to live and work – while trying to produce some of the best wines in the U.S. The viability of local vineyards is dependent on our ability to steward our land in a way that allows it to stay healthy and productive into the future. We also need to remember the water that flows underneath us every day - what we do on our land today is going to be in someone’s glass of water 50 years from now. We need to pay attention.
The fact is, people can live without wine but they can’t live without water. It’s important to LISW that we attempt to preserve and protect all of our surrounding waters as much as possible by limiting nitrogen use and reducing the number of chemicals in our vineyards. Today in its first year, over 650 acres of vineyard land is enrolled in the LISW program, almost 25% of the total vineyard acreage on Long Island, with more growers to follow suit in the years to come.
So when you’re raising a glass of local vino, not only should you think about the vineyards and the sea, but of the water that runs beneath our feet and how local vineyards are working hard to be sustainable. It’s really another part of our terroir – a part that is hidden yet so vital to our lives. It’s an entirely new way to look at Long Island wine.