For the many East End residents—from commercial fishermen to waterfront restaurant owners to the environmentally conscious—who are desperate to see water quality issues addressed, the scope of the problem has been almost overwhelming.
Hundreds of thousands of houses are each going to need thousands of dollars worth of improvements to their septic systems, backed by public funding sources that are woefully inadequate to fully address the problem. It is enough to make even the most enthusiastic shoulders slump.
But a North Fork sustainable growth group, Peconic Green Growth, has begun to narrow the focus. Working with the Southampton Town Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department, Peconic Green Growth has already mapped the pollution conditions in Southampton Town and much of the rest of the East End to identify the sources of nitrogen-laden pollution, the neighborhoods and streets having the biggest negative impacts on water quality, and even what the most cost- and impact-effective treatment to the conditions may be.
“We developed a prioritization system and assigned points to each of different characteristics,” said Glynnis Berry, director of Peconic Green Growth. “The good and the bad is that they tend to overlap. It’s that overlap of conditions that is the problem in the older communities.”
Aging septic systems that did little to contain waste when they were put in have grown only more useless over the years. Shallow groundwater tables capture polluted effluent from septics almost immediately, or even steep in it during high tides. Porous soil allows wastewater to flow quickly into groundwater. Neighborhoods crammed full of tiny residential lots exceed the amount of wastewater the soils can absorb before mixing it with groundwater. The speed with which groundwater flows toward surface waters, carrying pollution with it, increases.
Each is a category of an overlay on Ms. Berry’s maps—and where the map becomes cluttered with numerous conditions, that is ground zero for water quality problems, she says.
The neighborhoods that pour the greatest amounts of nitrogen into the environment lie on the shores of North Sea Harbor, Reeves Bay and Goose Creek; all of Hampton Bays south of Shinnecock Road; the Baypoint peninsula in Sag Harbor and much of Sag Harbor Village itself; most of Flanders; the residential enclave around Cold Spring Pond; and most of the waterfront neighborhoods in East Quogue.
Theses areas were largely developed prior to the 1970s, when environmental and zoning restrictions started regulating development. The lots are small, a half-acre or less, and the septics generally are outdated and ineffective, if not disintegrated entirely. They sit close to the bays, where groundwater tables are just a few feet below the surface, and sandy soils mean wastewater flows quickly, and barely filtered, into the subterranean river, reaching the bays in just a matter of months.
Because the lots and homes in these neighborhoods are small, the homes are often owned by less affluent families. They are less likely to be able to swallow the $5,000 cost of simply replacing a cesspool with a modern septic system that would offer only the smallest arresting of pollution, much less with a state-of-the-art system, which can substantially reduce nitrogen in waste effluent but can cost up to $30,000. Southampton Town has been able to offer small subsidies to some homeowners, which were eagerly snatched up, but thus far the support has been only a drop in the bucket.
But, Ms. Berry explains, by identifying those areas that should be the top priority as remediation efforts get ramped up in the coming years, the town and other agencies will be able to focus limited financial resources and regulations in the most effective way possible.
The mapping has also allowed Peconic Green Growth to begin running models of possible ways to address the pollutant deluge. Connecting East End neighborhoods to sewers, as has been done in parts of western Suffolk, is not likely, but communities of a few hundred houses connected to a localized treatment system have been shown to be a less expensive and more easily implemented option in some areas. In others, simply upgrading individual systems to modern standards will be more cost-effective. Hybrids of the two have been worked up too, creating smaller scale and less complicated community systems that treat only effluent waste and not solids.
Each is looked at by Peconic Green Growth in terms of the amount of nitrogen reduced per dollar spent. The permutations of solutions and costs can be as layered as the problems.
“If you do a community system, you can treat to a higher quality—75 percent to 90 percent of nitrogen removed. But if you do a single on-site system, there’s a large array of certified systems that go to about 50 percent,” said Ms. Berry, a LEEDS-certified architect and planner and member of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. “When we looked at one project, it was more cost-effective to treat to a higher level on fewer homes than to treat more homes at 50 percent. We did an evaluation on Fisher’s Island … if treated to 50 percent, it was $10,000 per unit. To get to 75 to 90 percent, it was $15,000 per unit—which is actually pretty cheap.”
In newer neighborhoods, it will be easier and less expensive in some areas to make large gains in nitrogen reduction. When subdivision developers are seeking approvals, most design the scope of their plans to stay beneath county-mandated thresholds that require sewage treatment systems. But in large subdivisions that pierced those thresholds and put in treatment systems, adding secondary or tertiary treatment technology to the existing system can greatly reduce the nitrogen loads emanating from it for very low per-unit costs.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said that the work the town has done with Peconic Green Growth has put Southampton well ahead of the curve in the campaign to spark a broad effort to improve water quality and allowed the town act as a clearinghouse for the infant stages of efforts in other municipalities as Suffolk County ramps up its own comprehensive study.
“We were recognized [by County Executive Steve Bellone] for having led the charge on this,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “Until we have the baseline, it’s hard to know what needs to be done. The mapping Glynnis did for us is exactly the kind of mapping the county is looking for and as part of the Clean Water Coalition she has been able to use the town’s GIS for other municipalities as well.”
Last week, Mr. Bellone announced that the county was going to make completion of its Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan a priority. The plan will apply analysis that is similar to what Peconic Green Growth has done throughout the county.
The PGG surveys are now looking to narrow the focus even further, down to streets and individual properties with questionnaires for homeowners asking about the actual use of their homes: the number of occupied bedrooms, seasonal usage habits, and so on.
As far as the public role in spurring the necessary upgrades, Peconic Green Growth advocates for the creation of a townwide wastewater tax district, revenues from which would go solely to upgrading septic systems in the critical target areas.
“The Chesapeake Bay region funds 100 percent of septic improvements within 100 feet of water,” Ms. Berry said. “In a recent survey we did, 87 percent of people thought a subsidy for septic improvements was appropriate. It will depend on the political will.”