Environmentalists Combine Forces To Tackle High Nitrogen Levels, Pollutants


A plan of attack aimed at getting to the source of water pollution is under way, led by the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, comprised of more than 40 groups and led by four conservation organizations.

The organization has begun a campaign to educate about, advocate for, and change the condition of ground and surface water on Long Island.

In decades past, harmful algal blooms have spread across East End waters. Red tide, brown tide and rust tide have plagued Long Island waters and seem to be getting only more frequent, according to members of the group. The algal blooms have had a devastating effect on both water quality and shellfish populations in the bays.

As independent researchers published their findings in recent years citing high levels of nitrogen in the environment as the source behind the algal blooms, the environmental groups—typically in constant contact—decided to take action together.

“It’s time now to have an adult conversation about how we manage and solve the problem—to have the East End that we all knew and loved 20 years back,” said Kevin McDonald, the director of conservation finance and policy for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, one of the four founding organizations of the campaign. “This is a profound issue to those on the East End. You don’t want to sit at Dockers [Waterside Restaurant] and say, ‘Why is the water green?’ or ‘Why is the water red?’ For jet-skiers, boaters, fishermen … being out on the clean water is something people will pay for. The fish will just leave. This is a quality-of-life issue and an economic problem.”

While the importance of clean water is straightforward, especially to those living on the South and North forks, the avenue to achieve that goal is not so simple. The partnership, comprised of four founder groups, The Nature Conservancy, the Group for the East End, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, and the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and other participating organizations, have a full plate if they want to see changes made.

The plan is to educate the public through television commercials, pamphlets, social media and community forums, and to lobby for changes to public policy that would reduce the output of pollutants that harm ground and surface waters, including prescription drugs, pesticides and toxic chemicals. Additionally, the group wants to find a single entity that would be responsible for Long Island water quality. While agencies like the Suffolk County Water Authority have some involvement, the partnership wants something more hands-on.

“It’s a lot like a kindergarten class with no teacher—there’s nobody responsible for the whole thing, there’s no structured outcome for the day,” Mr. McDonald said. “We’re trying to find someone to play a highly functioning kindergarten teacher.”

According to Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the coalition has gained a lot of support from many government officials across the island, but it is working to turn support into action. “We’re not looking for verbal support—we’re looking for policies to get changed,” she said. “We are bringing all the parties around the table to have a bill that is widely supported but still accomplishes the goal.”

According to Ms. Esposito, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle is joining with State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney of Lindenhurst to organize a roundtable with other elected officials and stakeholders, like the Long Island Farm Bureau, to discuss a new bill that would change the allowable amount of nitrogen in discharged water. Currently, regulations allow nitrogen in a concentration of 10 parts per million, or 10 milligrams per liter—the same level allowed in drinking water—when discharged. But experts say the delicate ecosystem of the bays requires an even higher standard: 2 parts per million, or 2 milligrams per liter, according to the proposed legislation.

By changing the limit, farms, golf courses, businesses and homes would be under stricter rules when it comes to their wastewater and runoff.

A large portion of nitrogen on the East End stems from septic and cesspool systems, fertilizer from farming and golf courses, and atmospheric deposition—the deposit of pollutants from the air—according to research done by Marine Biological Laboratory research scientists Ivan Valiela and Erin Kinney; Dr. Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook University professor and one of the nation’s leading experts on the harmful blooms; and the Nature Conservancy and other local conservation organizations.

“Pollutants we are now seeing are from decisions made 50 to 60 years ago,” Mr. McDonald said, noting that post-war development added a lot of pollutants to the environment. “Thirty years ago, we knew about the connection, but it wasn’t as well documented as this.”

That said, the group aims to change that now so that in years to come, Long Island, including the South Fork, can be a place that has clean water.

“If we do start work now and focus that work on areas of greatest influence on surface water, areas where septic waste gets into a creek in days, weeks and years, you may well be able to prioritize areas and see change in nitrogen levels much more rapidly instead of randomly,” said Robert DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End. “You could see change in just years.”

The organization recently contacted local elected officials by letter to encourage action and has set up a website, www.longislandcleanwaterpartnership.org.

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