Long Island Sand Mining Threatening Aquifers

This post is the first of a series I’m calling “Long Island From Above”

Looking over Long Island on Google Maps, you might notice a few large turquoise colored bodies of water. Zoom in and you’ll find man made landscapes like this 55 acre pool of water in the middle of a residential neighborhood. What’s it doing there?


While you won’t find a public beach or park along these shores, you will find established sand mining businesses that have grown over the last 40+ years to own some of the largest man made bodies of water on Long Island. But where did all that water come from?

Over the years, Ranco, Roanoke and Coram Materials mined their sandy parcels, all located within the porous pine barrens compatible growth area, to the point where they were digging below the water table. This created what’s known as a Sandpit Lake, made up of what should’ve been fresh drinking water. If you’ve ever dug a hole at the beach and hit water, you’ve created a miniature version of this enormous pit.

Take a look at how their mining operations have expanded over the years (images from the Suffolk County GIS portal)

Ranco: 55 Acre Pool

Roanoke: 117 Acre Pool (Notice the bus company headquartered right in the middle of the sand pit)

Coram Materials: 54 Acre Pool (Notice the subdivided lots they own)

While it’s certainly unique, you have to wonder how much impact these sand mining operations have on our drinking water in one of the most porous soil districts of Long Island.


The Suffolk County Bus System Could Be So Much More

Long Islanders love their cars. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, of the 2.8 million people (1.3 million workers) living on Long Island, just 11% of them use public transit (bus + rail) to get to work. A whopping 74% of workers drive alone.

While train ridership is generally more widely used, bus ridership on Long Island has always struggled. In total, just 4% of Long Islanders ride the bus daily (Ridership: Suffolk – 22,000, Nassau – 95,000).

So why do so few people take the bus?

There’s two leading theories when it comes to bus systems: Coverage and Frequency. Suffolk County’s bus system enjoys neither. Busses typically run every hour, though, limited busses arrive 45 minutes apart. That’s fine so long as the system covers a large part of the island.

To determine the coverage of the SCT Bus + LIRR, I opened the the system map in Illustrator and changed the route values to be about a quarter mile wide (a commonly used measurement to determine walkability). I then used an image color summarizer to calculate the percent of the image that was red vs green. According to the resulting image, people living in just 28% of the county have easy access to public transit. People living in the remaining 78% would have to walk further than a quarter mile or drive to access public transit.



Worse, Suffolk Transit just cut 8 routes due to infrequent use. In 2016, 31% of the island had easy access to transit. Now, just 28% has easy access. You can see the differences if you use the slider above. I would have no issue with this if they increased the frequency of other bus routes after this change but that is not the case.

I realize many of these areas of Long Island are not densely populated. To get a better picture, I chose the town of Babylon (Suffolk’s densest downtown) to compare to a city I consider to have fantastic public transit: Ithaca, NY.

Babylon Township, NY:

Bus/Rail Within A Quarter Mile: 46%

Area Beyond A Quarter Mile From Transit: 54%

Ithaca Quarter Mile

City of Ithaca, NY:

Bus Lines Within A Quarter Mile: 45%

Area Beyond A Quarter Mile From Transit: 55%

The resulting images show that the coverage of the two downtown areas are nearly identical. However, the usability/experience of the systems are immensely different. To start, every single route in the Babylon area runs 45 min or worse. The TCAT, Ithaca’s bus company, has headways from every 5 minutes to every hour downtown (with certain rural commuter routes – not shown – running every two hours). Given that frequency, the TCAT’s is able to get a daily ridership of 15,000 people with a population of 103,000 people. This means that 14.5% of the Tompkins County (much of it rural) rides the TCAT while only 4% of Long Islanders ride the bus.

I’m not the only one who has taken notice of Ithaca’s devotion to a good transit system. An study published in Science Direct titled Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice wrote that providing an oversupply of transit in Ithaca, along with in New York City, has helped create a larger demand for transit.

I have personally spent a lot of time in Ithaca over the past 4 years and I absolutely adore their transit system. Like the study concluded, I attribute much of its success to the collaboration with the college campuses, low fare and frequency of service. I could only wish that the Suffolk County Transit would take note.

Next, take a look at the below image, taken from the Regional Plan Association, which shows the coverage of local bus lines in NYC:

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An incredible 97% of the city is can walk less than a quarter mile to access busses. When you add in rail, subway, express busses, ferries and the short headways seen in NYC, it’s no wonder why car ownership is below 50%.

Back on Long Island, I strongly believe it would be best for the Suffolk Transit to switch from a coverage system to a frequency system.

Currently, if I tried taking the bus between my parent’s homes, it would take an hour and 40 minutes for a 20 minute drive (excluding the o.8 mile walk from my mom’s house and the 2 mile walk to my dad’s house). Since the busses run an hour apart as is, I would only have limited times when I could make the trip. Even if I wanted to take the bus to the LIRR, it would take 15 minutes to get to the train station (no big deal) but since the two systems are no longer connected, it would perfectly miss the train by 10 minutes (forcing me to wait an additional 50 minutes for the next one).

Why bother? The busses would be much better used if they had short headways and if they were situated through downtowns to connect residents to stores, train stations and their jobs. Additionally, having busses devoted to downtowns would create larger demand at all hours of the day, not just morning/evening commutes to/from work.

For the few people who need public transit services in less dense areas, they can make use of an on demand service system. Ithaca has one of those systems and it’s the same fare for anyone who needs it outside the downtown zone. Suffolk has this as well but the fare is nearly double the cost of a normal fare and it is only for disabled persons.

In the end, I’m positive that no advocate of planning/economic development would be against what I’m suggesting here. It all comes down to how the community perceives it: Will it save them tax money and will it create more traffic in towns? Those are unfortunately questions I cannot answer. It’s up to the community to demand more routes/better frequency.


Ventotene: A Look Into Past, Present and Future Sustainability


The small Italian island of Ventotene, located midway between Rome and Naples off the coast of Formia, was first inhabited nearly 2000 years ago under the Roman Emperor, Augustus. Sadly, he would primarily use the island to exile his enemies, including his youngest daughter Gulia. Without motorized modern ferry transportation, the island was often completely cut off from the rest of Italy. Because of this autonomy, the island is a wonderful example of ancient Roman sustainable practices.

Roman engineers were far ahead of their time in terms of sustainability. As described by the Comune Di Ventotene, “Al tempo dei romani l’approvvigionamento idrico veniva costantemente garantito dalla presenza, nelle zone abitate, di serbatoi in cui veniva convogliata, mediante vasche di raccolta e canali di immissione, l’acqua piovana.” [English: In Roman times, the water supply was constantly assured by the presence of tanks that collected rainwater through a series of  tunnels/canals with various entrance points.] (Comune Di Ventotene). Because there was no natural source of freshwater on the island, the Romans built a series of underground cisterns (See Figure 1) that utilized the island’s downward sloping gradient to collect rainwater runoff. Similarly to the Romans, “In the Puuc – a seasonally dry region with no permanent natural water sources – two hydro-technological inventions designed to capture and store rainwater dominated water management: (1) large, open still-water reservoirs managed by neighborhood and city leadership and (2) small underground water cisterns” (Barthel 2013). Halfway around the world, the Romans built a system similar to that of the Mayans with no known contact. With enough freshwater, the Romans were able to turn their focus to building resilience, first by using their cistern system to supplement their food supply.

IMG_0110Figure 1: The entrance to the still-standing (now dried up) Roman cistern tunnels of Ventotene.

Not only did they collect enough rainwater to sustain their settlement, the Romans also used their system of cisterns to create a pseudo estuary for their fish farm so the captured fish could naturally reproduce. “I romani avevano osservato che il mare alla foce dei fiumi era più ricco di pesci e quindi avevano cercato di ricreare lo stesso habitat” [English: The Romans had observed that the sea at the mouth of the river was full of fish and so they tried to recreate the same habitat] (Fonti 2004). This allowed the Romans to enjoy a primary, reliable source of food, independent from the mainland. Finally, to build a greater degree of food security, the Romans cultivated the rest of the island for legumes, lentils and a variety of fruits and vegetables which are still cultivated on the island today. That said, the island has not always been successful at sustaining civilization. The fall of Rome left the island practically abandoned until the rise of the Bourbons of Naples who colonized the island primarily to imprison traitors 17th-18th centuries. Eventually, though, this new wave of settlement was able to sustain itself through to the present, largely due to the increase in global tourism.

Today, the island remains largely self-sustaining, with a few important exceptions. First, and possibly most importantly, modern engineers do not know how to get the Roman cisterns back up and running. Instead, the island has to import water from the mainland via tanker (See Figure 2). Not only is the present water system unsustainable due to the emissions generated from such an inefficient system of delivery, the water quality is hardly comparable to locally sourced natural rainwater. I have personally tested the water quality of the tap water on the island as compared to collected rainwater by using a TDS, or total dissolved solids, meter. Although the tap water showed an average of 300 PPM, marginally acceptable tap water, as per EPA standards, the rainwater showed about 60 PPM, the equivalent to carbon filtering and mountain springs (HM Digital). On top of the water quality being so poor, the delivery of freshwater is completely dependent on the weather. During my stays on the island, there would be entire days during the peak tourism months where the tanker is unable to navigate the waters. On one instance, the water level had gotten so low that the town had to issue a notice pleading for water conservation.


Figure 2: Ventotene’s freshwater tanker.

Another system that relies on a tanker delivery is the island’s power generators. Presently, the island has 4 diesel generators powered by Enel, a large European electricity provider. To reduce dependence on petroleum deliveries, the company is currently installing PV cells around the island. However, their main purpose is to supplement the diesel generators, not replace them, as well as to jump start the generators during blackouts (Fastelli, 2012).

As for the food security of the island, modern high speed ferries have allowed for the island to both import a large amount of food goods, as well as export some locally grown specialty foods. “While such high global connectivity between cities and remote food supplies can decrease cities’ vulnerability to food shortages and build resilience during medium-severe crises, sudden severances of supply lines – that for instance peak oil scenarios threatens to levy – pose major threats to urban food security.” (Barthel 2013). While the island is enjoying the food security provided by a connected globe, just as Barthel argues, the island is still vulnerable to severe storm weather, windy days and rough seas, which can still sever connections to the mainland, and the rest of the globe.

Ventotene, as its name suggests (vento=wind), is constantly bombarded by the wind. Because of this, the island is highly vulnerable to erosion (See Figure 3). Further, the island is constantly bombarded by waves, slowly weakening its structural integrity. There have been unfortunate instances where falling rocks have crushed visitors, leading to a rigorous public works project to halt, or to attempt to slow, erosion island wide.


Figure 3: The areas of the island that are venerable to eroding because of high winds, waves and weak material. The island is made of a somewhat unique material: tufa, which is a type of volcanic ash (Fonti 2004).

Farming is a fundamental part of the island’s success; without it, the island would have likely starved under times of severance from the mainland. “Ventotene ha infatti una lunga tradizione di sussistenza e di autonomia alimentare: fin dall’epoca romana e poi con la colonizzazione borbonica, l’agricoltura ha sempre rappresentato un’attività fondamentale per gli isolani, capace di provvedere al sostentamento di una comunità ben più numerosa di quella attuale” [English: Ventotene has a long tradition of subsistence and food autonomy: since Roman times and then with the colonization of Bourbon, agriculture has always been a fundamental activity for the islanders, who are able to provide for the maintenance of a community far greater than residents.] (Amo Ventotene). Thus, it is of great concern that the island is currently losing a great deal of farmland to “urban” sprawl (See Figure 4). Luckily, the island still has a considerable amount of arable land that is not currently farmland, but will hopefully become so. Another part of the island’s food systems success is the reliance on ecological farming practices. The island, short of the growing of lentils, does not grow monocultures. Instead, island farmers grow a pleasant mixture of fruit trees, grapes, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, string beans and other vegetables.


Figure 4: Small scale urban sprawl experienced by the island of Ventotene because of its recent tourism boom. Notice the loss of farmland associated with the town’s expansion. (Fonti 2004).

Finally, it is worth noting that the island’s architecture, designed long before the invention of cars, promotes walking. While there are a few roads wide enough for small cars, most of the island is pedestrian friendly. This is one of Ventotene’s central characteristics: visitors can walk from their hotel/villa to the store to the beach to the piazza and so on. However, because there are a few hotels far from the town center, as well as the need for shipments to the island, it is unlikely that the island will ever be completely car free.

Even though the need for cars seems to be a permanent fixture, the island has progressively self-imposed a zero emissions goal for itself. By working with the regional auto manufacturer, Piaggio, the municipality has already replaced its sanitation fleet, and all other municipal vehicles with electric vehicles (See Figure 5). The island is also testing an experimental fleet management system to optimize charging times for the vehicles based on location (Fabbri). In addition, a large PV (photovoltaic) charging station was built to charge the vehicles using the sun. This system is free for any resident to charge their own vehicles and some residents have already purchased their own electric vehicles to do just that. With persistently high petroleum prices in Europe, the Comune Di Ventotene should work to replace any and all petroleum machinery with electric substitutes. For example, they should invest in electric boats to replace their fleet of Guardia Costiera boats, as well as to incentivize fisherman and other residents to follow in their footsteps.

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Figure 5: The two of the island’s current electric vehicle fleet. (Scelte Sostenibili).

While the municipality should be praised for its sustainable progress, without replacing their four diesel generators with wind or PV systems, the island will never be able to reach its goal. With such sustained wind and constant sunlight, the island would be making not only a green choice, but an economic one. With ecotourism on the rise, the island should make changing their power source its number one priority.

Finally, the island’s inefficient fresh water supply system must be replaced with localized roof based rainwater collection, a revival of the Roman runoff based cisterns, or a desalination plant. It is not only for reasons of sustainability but for the sake of quality, the island should immediately look to invest in such a system.

Whether the Romans, Bourbons, or the Italian government rule over the small island of Ventotene, the island has consistently excelled at sustainable practices. Ventotene may end up becoming a model for sustainable Italian and European cities of antiquity based on its consistently progressive policies, initiatives and lifestyles.


Figure 6: A panorama of the island of Ventotene (taken by yours truly) from the nearby island of Santo Stefano. Click if you want to see a larger version! Thanks for reading!


  1. Barthel, Stephan. Urban Gardens, Agriculture, And Water Management: Sources Of Resilience For Long-Term Food Security In Cities. (2013). Ecological Economics.
  2. Fabbri, Gianluca. Sustainable Mobility Models For The Island Of Ventotene. (2010). POMOS – Pole for Sustainable Mobility.
  3. Fastelli, I. (2012). Energy Storage On Islands: A Sustainable Energy Future For Islands. Eurelectric Brussels.
  4. Fonti, Luciano.I Piani Di Assetto Delle Aree Marine Protette. Il Caso Delle Isole Di Ventotene E S. Stefano. (2004). XXV Conferenza Italiana Di Scienze Regionali.
  5. I Tre Cardini Del Progetto Per Un’isola Sostenibile. Scelte Sostenibili.
  6. Le Cisterne e L’Acquedotto. Comune Di Ventotene.
  7. Ventotene, Isola Di Contadini Slow In Rete Con Il Mediterraneo. (2013). Amo Ventotene.
  8. What Is TDS? Hm Digital.