Can Long Island Be Saved? — Part XII: 2014 — A Watershed Year?

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This December finds Long Island’s environmentalists, those in The Nature Conservancy, The Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, The Group For the East End, The Pine Barrens Society, and the 100+ local organizations in The Long Island Clean Water Partnership in a state of wonder and exhaustion: Wonder because politicians and policy makers at all levels of government and across the political spectrum are standing together. They are all in agreement with the science that shows that Long Island is in a water quality / water pollution crisis and that something must be done immediately and on a large scale to address it.

And that is where the exhaustion comes in — with so much at stake, everyone has been working double time to lay the groundwork for what will be arguably the largest infrastructure project in the country — bringing modern sewage treatment and water management systems to Long Island, particularly in Suffolk County, which is only 30% sewered, and has 360,000 septic tanks and cesspools. Hundreds of meetings at the local, state, and federal level, and among the many many non-profits trying to define and address the problem, studies, reports, proposals, and posts, many thousands of pages in all, to explain the issues and to propose solutions.

2015 will see Suffolk County begin to implement a $383 million dollar project to replace 10,000 septic tanks in low lying areas near to four rivers along The South Shore of Long Island with sewers — The Carll’s River in Babylon, The Connetquot in Oakdale/Great River, The Patchogue River in Patchogue of course, and The Forge River in Mastic) so that we can begin to reduce the nitrogen levels in The Great South Bay — by 15% according to the analysis. In addition, 19 households were selected as test sites for onsite denitrification systems. In all, six different types of systems will be tested among the 19 locations. This is an emerging technology. It is just not practical to run sewer lines everywhere, so such solutions are crucial to Long Island’s success in addressing the issue of nitrogen pollution in the groundwater.

At the center of Long Island’s water quality woes is the fact that we have over 500,000 cesspools and septic tanks in total leeching nitrogen into our sandy soil, into our groundwater. This nitrogen then acts as plant food, triggering massive algal blooms in The Great South Bay, in The Peconic Bay, Moriches Bay, Shinnecock Bay, and many other bays, ponds, harbors, and fresh water lakes. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists ALL of Long Island’s waters as impaired. Scientists predict that if nothing is done, Long Island will have no marshes or eel grass / sea grass left by 2030, and with that habitat gone, the marine and aquatic life they support will be gone as well.

This environmental catastrophe is also an economic one. Since 1985 when the first large scale brown tides hit, most of the of the aquatic plant and animal life in our waters has been wiped out, taking with it many thousands of jobs. Clammers, fishermen, scallopers, all quickly put out of business. On the real estate side, much of what made Long Island an appealing place to live — its waters and the natural beauty they provide, is rapidly vanishing. For boaters and beach goers, being on or in the water is losing its appeal. Long Island sees millions come to its beaches every summer. Will that continue when beaches are regularly closed, when the reek of rotting sea lettuce is a constant issue? This too is driving our policy makers. Long Island is fast losing a key asset. Restoring our waters to health would help to revitalize the local economy, and prevent an eventual flight from a place become unlivable.

And ‘unlivable’ is not too strong a word here. Long Islanders live on top of their drinking water. It isn’t piped in from upstate, like New York City. It’s right below us as a ‘sole source aquifer,’ left eons ago by glaciers. Now though the nitrogen from the septic tanks is seeping ever deeper into our soil, along with yet more nitrogen from fertilizers, both residential and commercial, pesticides (120 have been detected in our ground water), and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s / toxic plumes) both from household cleaners and from industrial pollution, and from pharmaceuticals flushed down the toilet or tossed out with the regular trash. Long Island used to have about the best drinking water in the country. Now it is under severe threat. For now, we still have potable water, but private wells are being closed left and right, and we keep having to drill deeper for water that we can still use safely.

2014, in sum, was a very demanding year for Long Island’s environmental policy makers. Just mobilizing our collective efforts has been an enormous task. But the very fact that we have together all looked at the science and are now working in concert has made this a watershed year as well. No one could have imagined we’d be at this point a year ago. By the same coin, the scope of work ahead — for 2015 and beyond — is jaw dropping. IBM Smarter Cities awarded Suffolk County with $500,000 of consulting services to help us begin to coordinate among all the various layers of agencies that would be addressing our water issues. As they poignantly put it, we Long Islanders have no choice but to follow through. A sustainable Long Island, one where our children and theirs can clam, fish, swim, boat as we had, depends on us investing in our future.

At this point it is fair for you to ask, “What can I do to help?” There are 2.8 million people living in Nassau and Suffolk. How many know what the situation is on Long Island, our groundwater pollution and septic tank issues, where our drinking water comes from? Certainly a lot more than when the year started, but hardly enough yet to truly turn the situation around. Stay informed and inform others. There are 100+ organizations now in The Long Island Clean Water Partnership. Find an organization near you. Ask how you can help them. While the septic tanks, for instance, contribute 69% of the nitrogen in The Great South Bay, and to the devastating brown tides that are now an annual occurrence, quick release nitrogen fertilizer on the lawn only fans the flames. Don’t use it. We don’t need pesticides in our waters either. Bugs have their place, and if you take them out what else suffers? Household chemicals and pharmaceuticals need to be disposed of properly. Contact your town officials to ask them how best to do that locally.

For 2015, it should be our goal to stem the tide, to begin to reverse decades of destruction and neglect. Long Island is worth the fight. Preserve and restore it for future generations. As far as Save The Great South Bay is concerned, we will be working with various other environmental groups to outline and to implement local projects along the shoreline of the bay and the estuaries that feed into it to create a healthier bay. If you feel there is something we together should be doing to help the bay, or if you’d like to pitch in, let us know at info (at) Savethegreatsouthbay (dot) org.

This is not rocket science. We now know why our waters are sick, and we know how to cure them. We need only the will. It will be expensive, but it will be far cheaper than if we did nothing.