Calling conditions in Suffolk County’s tidal waters a crisis that must be addressed aggressively, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last week announced a new push by the county to catalog sources of high nitrogen levels in bays and groundwater, and to begin developing steps and technologies that will help stanch the harmful flow of pollutants from human development.
“I consider water quality and its impact on public health and safety to be the most important priority of my administration,” Mr. Bellone said at a press conference last Thursday, January 23. “Today begins a sustained campaign to inform Suffolk County residents about the scope of this problem, and to work with the scientific, environmental and business community, as well as my colleagues on all levels of government, to identify and fund solutions.”
Joined by officials from Southampton Town, which has led for calls for new technology to address nitrogen in waste effluent from homes, and Stony Brook University, Mr. Bellone unveiled results of a countywide water study showing that residential development has been pumping millions of tons of nitrogen into the island’s surface and ground waters, sparking algae blooms and diminishing marine species like shellfish and sea grasses in local bays.
“Water is at the heart of everything on Long Island,” the county executive continued. “It is critical to our health and our quality of life, and it underpins our multibillion-dollar tourism industry. Today, we release a report that shows we have been polluting this precious resource in a way that has devastated our surface waters—our bays and river corridors—caused negative trends in the quality of our drinking water and left us more vulnerable to future storms, like Sandy.”
Scientists from Stony Brook University have shown direct links between the growth of residential development along the shores and within the watersheds of local bays, and the emergence of the mammoth algae blooms dubbed “brown tide” and “red tide” for the colors they have stained vast swaths of Long Island’s bays intermittently over the last 30 years. Studies have shown that such blooms are fed by elevated nitrogen levels in bays, and that the nitrogen undoubtedly is getting into the water tables from human waste pumped into residential septic systems that sit in or near groundwater and are ineffective at containing the polluted effluents.
Any solution faces an overwhelming obstacle: tens of billions of dollars in potential costs to upgrade septic systems on hundreds of thousands of properties to reduce the amount of nitrogen that seeps into groundwater and flows into bays. But proponents have pointed out that doing nothing could be more expensive in the long run, as declining water quality impacts the economic engine of much of Suffolk County.
“The good news is that the county is embracing this science—it recognizes very clearly the connection between what is happening on land and water and how it affects our economy,” said Chris Gobler, Ph.D, a professor at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “I applaud the county for continually being vigilant, recognizing the science behind these issues and what’s driving changes, and paving the path for creative solutions to help the environment and our economy.”
Just 30 percent of Suffolk County’s residential properties are connected to sewer systems that treat wastewater to reduce nitrogen levels before it is discharged into the environment. A large chunk of the rest of those homes, many of them aging cottages in waterfront neighborhoods with long outdated and disintegrating cesspools that sit directly in shallow water tables, need major upgrades in their septics.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst has led an effort to bring together county officials and scientists from Stony Brook University on a proposal to New York State to make the East End the headquarters of a progressive scientific and industrial effort to develop new technologies and solutions for containing and treating residential waste. She said this week that they expect to make a pitch to the state for funding and support for a “Manhattan Project-type effort” to find a solution to the island’s daunting septic issues as soon as next month.
“We have to stop talking about it being a problem and start talking about what to do about it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said this week. “It’s going from bad to worse very quickly.”
The first step, the county executive said, will be for the county to complete a long-awaited update to its Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan. That update will complete a countywide survey of water pollution conditions already begun on the East End and shepherded by Southampton Town. The survey will catalog the sources of nitrogen pollution, from waste systems to chemical-laden runoff from farm fields, in individual neighborhoods and regions, and list the steps that will be necessary to address them, like septic upgrades, more catch basins and runoff barriers.
Pollution sources in Southampton, East Hampton, and parts of the North Fork and Shelter Island have already been mapped through an effort led by Peconic Green Growth, a not-for-profit scientific and public outreach group based in Orient, with the help of Southampton’s Geographic Information Systems Department and its property information mapping technology.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that the county’s first chore will be expanding that mapping to the entire county so that the exact scope of the necessary solutions is known.
“You have to understand what the scope and nature of the problem is, first and foremost,” she said. “You need to look at a body of water and its surroundings. Is there runoff? Is there residential septics close by? Here, we need sewers; here, we need [agricultural] runoff barriers. Until you know what it is you are trying to address, you can’t address it.”