Is Long Island At a Turning Point? Investing in Waste Water Infrastructure And Changing Our Lawn Care Practices

By any measure, this was a landmark week for those who for years have sought to address Long Island’s nitrogen pollution issues.

First came the announcement by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone that a pilot program has been proposed that over the next two years will deploy 400 onsite denitrification systems across Suffolk County over the next two years.   These systems, that would cost between $14,500 to $17,500, and financed by grants of up to $10,000 and with low interest loans, will replace cesspools and septic tanks and lower the nitrogen load by 70%.

All this is pending approval by The County Legislature.   There is a public hearing pending  for April 25th, with a vote as early as May 16th to follow.

You can read about the announcement and see a short video from the press conference via Newsday by clicking on the image below:

All this is the result of a five year effort from the county.  Candidate systems needed to be identified and tested — an ongoing effort.   Installers are being trained.   Financing, crucially, had to be procured.  Regulations had to be redrafted for these new systems.   There are 360,000 cesspools and septic tanks in need of replacement in Suffolk, with 209,000 targeted as a higher priority.   This two year pilot is essential if we are to address the problem at scale.

And we must.   If we don’t address the nitrogen problem now, all our bays, ponds and creeks will be gone over the next two decades, killed by the massive algal blooms that have been choking the life out of our waters.   Nitrogen is fertilizer, and we have way too much in our groundwater from these septic tanks.  Also compromised will be our drinking water, which sits below us, left behind by ancient glaciers.   Nitrogen has compromised part of of aquifer already.  We can’t afford to have it render all our water undrinkable.

The second bit of big news regarding Long Island’s nitrogen pollution crisis came from Albany.   Thursday news broke that state legislators had reached a tentative agreement to budget in $2 billion dollars to address Long Island’s antiquated waste water infrastructure, with up to $7 billion dollars to be allocated in the coming years.   Here we must applaud the efforts of Governor Cuomo.   He recognized back in February 2014, with the release of Suffolk County’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, that all of Long Islands waters and drinking water were in grave danger, and that action had to be taken immediately.    He initiated a series of conferences on the matter, helped procure $388 million to replace some 15,000 cesspools in low lying areas along four major rivers flowing into The Great South Bay, and inaugurated The Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan, drafted by The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget fully recognizes the gravity of the situation.   This is the largest environmental crisis no one has heard of.   It affects 3 million Long Islanders, and therefore New York City as well.   If we do nothing, our drinking water will be compromised and our waters — what makes Long Island a place to live in and to visit in the summer — will be lifeless.   What happens then to real estate prices?   And to a way of life?

Suffolk County’s pilot program, if approved by the legislature, will be a perfect complement to the $2 billion that is to be allocated from New York State.   We need to get it right for the first 400 before we deploy by the tens of thousands.

Of course, many would say that all this money will just end up being a huge boondoggle, that developers will use the opportunity via sewering to continue to overbuild on Long Island, where the traffic jams for the morning commute on the LIE now begin at Exit 62.  Long Island is one of the most crowded places in the country.  In fact if it were its own country, it would be the 4th most densely populated in the world, and that’s not even including Queens and Brooklyn!   There are a number of high density building projects now on the drawing boards that depend on sewering for their viability — The Ronkonkoma Hub, Heartland, where Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital once stood, as well as several proposed development projects proposed by RXR a Long Island real estate giant with $10 billion under management at Island Hills Golf course at Garvies Point in Glen Cove, and elsewhere.    Some find it counterproductive for New York State and Suffolk County to be spending billions to reduce nitrogen by way of saving Long Island while high density projects only increase nitrogen loading, traffic, and air pollution in a place where we are at a critical point in all three areas.

What if we spent $7 billion only to find out that we were right back where we started, or worse, because there wasn’t any attention paid to the larger picture, which is Long Island’s sustainability?  The phrase ‘smart growth’ is thrown around a lot.   But we need to mean it.   I am not against high density grow per se.   Revitalizing Main Streets, creating walkable town centers near public transportation, building apartments for the young and carless and for empty nesters, is crucial to Long Island’s future.  But  these high density constructions must be offset by further open space preservation, by revitalization of our ponds, creeks, and bays, by a comprehensive plan where nature and human beings can both flourish.  We can’t overbuild our way to prosperity.   We must not be adding to our problems under the guise of addressing them.  But we do need to build a Long Island for the 21st Century.

The good news for those who fear that the funds being allocated by New York State will only add to our problems as sewering enables further population density is this:   Sewering in many areas has become prohibitively expensive given the density of existing construction.   A recent analysis in Nassau County estimated that the cost of sewer hookups would be as high as $130,000 per household, a far cry from the $14,500 to $17,000 the onsite denitrification systems are now estimated to cost.   Further, these onsite systems can be deployed now.  Rolling out sewage infrastructure would take at least a decade, and we don’t have the time to waste.

While sewering depletes our aquifer by piping out the treated effluent into the ocean — over 100,000,000 gallons each day between Bay Park and Bergen Point sewage treatment plants – onsite systems would employ the treated gray water as a means of watering and fertilizing the lawn, saving people money for each.   Along the way, soil microbes would break down harmful chemicals in the water, and the grass itself would take up even more excess nitrogen.  Increasingly, it looks like the bulk of the septic tank replacements will be from these onsite systems, currently being further advanced at Stony Brook University’s Center For Clean Water Technology, with New York State taking on the problem and creating marketable solutions for Long Island and elsewhere.

It is estimated that 70% of Long Island’s excess nitrogen problem comes from septics.   Some of the remaining comes from atmospheric deposition, which comes from coal fired power plants and from automobiles.   As coal fired plants are decommissioned (they are increasingly uneconomical) and the auto fleet converts more and more to electric, we should see that contribution decrease.  Some also comes from lawn fertilizers.   How much?    It depends on who you ask, and where.   I’ve seen estimates of between 7-15%.   Factor in that lawn fertilizer can only be legally applied between April 1st and October 31st, and the fact that this source of nitrogen tends to hit our ponds, rivers, and bays all at once during rain events, and you have really pulses of nitrogen, pulses that help to trigger the algal blooms that plague our waters.

The fertilizer manufacturers like Scotts are of course ready to point the finger at the septic tanks as the big source of the problem.   They have so far proven quite unwilling to do anything to change the formulations on their product, and lower the nitrogen content in the bag to 10% or below (from amounts often 3-4X that), a rate that would go a long way towards reducing nitrogen runoff.   They will draft laws that foster the appearance of action, but actually require of them to do nothing but maybe change the packaging and the instructions for use, with guidelines that are both confusing and unenforceable, “Kabuki Law.”  They will cite consumer preference for green lawns — Long Island loves its lawns.

But what is the cost of this fertilizing, in dollar amounts?    If we are about to spend $2 billion on waste water infrastructure, with about another $400 million allocated, and plan to allocate another $5 billion on top of that to address the nitrogen problem, what is the dollar cost / value of addressing the 7-15% contribution of lawn fertilizers?    Let’s say we are spending $7 billion to get rid of 70% of the problem from septics.  We are then spending $100 million for every percent reduction.   Suddenly the claim that lawn fertilizer contributes minimally to the problem doesn’t seem so minimal.

Along with investing billions in waste water infrastructure, we need as Long Island, to reinvent the suburban lawn.   Instead of commercial fertilizer, use an electric mulching mower, or have your lawn care people use one.  Grass clippings are the best possible food for your grass.  Who knew?   A close second are the leaves in the fall.  Mulch them up too.  Your yard will thank you.    What we do now is we have everything raked up, bagged, dumped in a landfill, then we wonder why our lawn is looking sickly and so, of course, we buy fertilizer to address the issue, usually a high nitrogen product from a company like Scotts.   What happens then?  The grass grows bright green, grows rapidly, but the roots remain shallow, since they don’t need to grow deep for their nutrients.  Add to that the estimated 5,000,000 lbs of pesticides that Long Islanders also put on their properties each year, and you have dead soil, a decimation of the insect population, a decrease in the population of birds, amphibians and fish.   And all that of course washing into our bays.  As the folks at The Perfect Earth Project will tell you, mulch, let your grass grow high (3 1/2 inches) so the roots grow deep and the lawn crowds out weeds, introduce nitrogen fixing clover (which bees love by the way) and use native plantings, ones made for our climate that don’t need constant watering and care.  If you have your yard landscaped, have them follow their guidelines.   They actually have a training program for landscapers that teaches them eco-friendly yard care measures.

There is also The I Love Long Island Campaign, launching on Earth Day in Babylon.  Around twenty Long Island environmental groups already have signed on in support:

 

Take the pledge by clicking on the card below:

We need to cut back dramatically on nitrogen pollution if we want to build a Long Island that will serve future generations.  This will require that we change the way we treat and use water, how we care for our lawns, how we build our communities.    New York State and Suffolk County are doing what they can.   Every Long Islander needs to pitch in as well.   Nitrogen pollution on Long Island has a million sources — every septic tank and lawn.   It will take all of us to address this.

Please feel free to contact us, and / or offer your comments here.