A Letter To The Great River Community

Reprinted with permission from The Islip Bulletin with edits.

This is part of Save The Great South Bay’s continuing Newsroom series, where we feature guest posters speaking to local bay issues.   If you have a story you want to tell, or wish to reprint here, please email us at [email protected],org.

I am writing this to encourage Great River residents to vote yes on your Jan. 22 sewer vote. The beauty of the project is that construction costs are paid for with federal funds, Sandy Relief money secured to build coastal resiliency by improving water quality along The Great South Bay.

If sewering is voted down, these funds go back to the federal government, and The South Shore will have thrown away a golden opportunity to improve our quality of life.  With sewering, typically, residents see a marked increase in home values.   True, there’s a cost involved — $65 a month for sewer services, ,but then you’d no longer have to maintain an antiquated, and possibly failing cesspool or septic tank.   A Yes on this sewer vote would be a big win for The Great South Bay and for the hamlet of Great River.

A Yes vote in Great River, furthermore, would create momentum for sewering in other South Shore Communities.   A total of $388 million in funds were secured to sewer 7000 homes in three  strategic areas along the major rivers on The South Shore — The Carll’s in Babylon, The Forge in Mastic, and The Connetquot, where the village of Great River gets its name.  These other communities will have their votes as well, and again, it will be ‘use it or lose it.’   So what do we choose?

if the ballot is approved, Great River will undertake the first community water quality improvement project in 40 years on The South Shore..  With this kick start, other communities like my town Sayville will soon follow.  Given our water quality crisis — nitrogen, much of it from septics (but also from lawn fertilizer and runoff) is killing our bay, all our bays, rivers and ponds, and contaminating our drinking water — sewage infrastructure is inevitable.  The beauty of the Great River project is that the money is already there via federal funds. nFree now or very expensive later is a fair way to look at it.

70 then and 70 now. The Great South Bay, a shallow 56 square mile lagoon, and ‘shellfish factory’ drew people to its shores for hundreds of years, baymen, fishermen.   Historians estimate that up to 70 percent of the nation’s clams were harvested from The Great South Bay over the centuries.  Today, some estimate that nearly 70 percent of the nitrates that kill our bay come from the 100,000+ cesspools and septic tanks on The South Shore, sitting within the bay’s watershed [ Ed Note:  While it is indisputable that septics contribute much of the nitrates, the percentage is hardly a settled matter and more research is needed].

Here are the basic facts for your Jan. 22 sewer vote:

  • Federal funding will be lost if the referendum vote this January is not approved.One-time federal funds reduce the original annual charge from $2,000 to $660 per year.
  • Construction is 100 percent paid for with federal funds.
  • Much of the nitrates in The Great South Bay and The Connetquot River come from untreated waste.
  • These excess nitrates cause the brown, red, rust tides that have decimated our fish and shellfish populations and all but destroyed a way of life on The South Shore
  • Being near healthy water adds value to one’s home. Polluted waters undercut this benefit.
  • The construction will include low-pressure pump station installation, sewer lines, abandonment of old septic tanks/cesspools, electrical connection and property restoration.
  • Annual debt service to residential homes will average $119 (included in the $65/mo fee

Nature on her own cannot return The Great South Bay to its former grandeur. A bold clam seeding  effort was undertaken by The Nature Conservancy in The Great South Bay. There were 250 million (a quarter-billion!) pinkie-nail sized clams spawned from the effort. The objective? Restore The Great South Bay with these ‘filter feeders.’   By one estimate, in 1976 40% of the bay’s water was filtered by clams each day.  The collapse of the bay’s ecosystem came soon after due to poor water quality and clam harvests fell by well over 90%,  6000 baymen lost their livelihoods, and The South Shore was changed, seemingly forever.

But what if we could reverse the process, bring back the clams and therefore the bay?  Clammers came out of the woodwork to help in the reseeding effort, dreaming of the bountiful harvests of their youth. We were excited! Then we had a bad set of years, for water quality on the mainland continued to degrade, and that was followed by brown tide and other harmful algae blooms fueled by nitrogen from sewage. The clam seedlings were wiped out. Decimated. To achieve a real solution, it will take both nature and engineering.

Sewers are a critical component of restoring The Great South Bay. by one estimate, for every  dollar invested in building water and sewer infrastructure, $2.62 is generated for other businesses.  Further, there’s the long term economic impact.   $6.35 in local economic activity is generated per every dollar invested.

One can look locally for how sewers help a community. Patchogue Village was on its last legs in the mid-1990s. Yet from 2000-2017, Patchogue has generated $693 million in economic growth. None of it would’ve been possible without sewers. Sewering is so vital to its future that Patchogue just doubled its sewer capacity. Patchogue’s revitalization is a model of how local, can-do thinking can save and reinvent a great village.

I don’t aspire for my town, Sayville, to become a restaurant mecca. I suspect Great River residents feel exactly the same way. Yet I dream of bringing back the Great South Bay I came to love when I worked as a teen on the Sayville Ferries. And Great River can provide the spark that all towns east of that hamlet need to reinvent.

All points east of East Islip need better water management. Oakdale’s long-neglected flooding problems, which can be toxic when factoring in untreated sewage, continue due to government inaction. And according to a Town of Islip study of 150 or so water monitoring stations in the town, Sayville has the highest nitrate load. Yet not so long ago, in the 1970s, getting South Shore kids to show up for summer sports practice was impossible. We were too busy earning real money clamming. Legend has it you could walk from Long Island’s shores to Fire Island, walking from boat to boat. Our marine heritage on The Great South Bay makes our home special.  Let Great River be the place that turns the tide our way. Vote yes on Great River’s sewers so we can recover some of what once was and build a future here for those who will follow.   As the motto of your hamlet states, “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

Ed Note: Bertsch is a Sayville resident and a member of the Sayville Civic Association.

About James Bertsch

James Bertsch grew up in Sayville and continues to live there with his children and wife. James grew up on the Great South Bay, working for the Sayville Ferry Service, and his children sail at Wet Pants. James studied philosophy and history at St. John’s University in Minnesota before serving children in the Archdiocese of Chicago as a volunteer. James studied American history, culture and literature at Colorado State University. There, he also taught composition before teaching English and Social Studies in Long Island high schools. For the 17 years, James has served as building administrator in the Connetquot and Patchogue-Medford Schools and now in the Special Education division of Nassau BOCES. James earned his doctorate in Education from St. John’s, N.Y. James’ goal as an activist is to bring the civility and inquiring nature of the classroom to the public sphere. James is one of the founding members of the Greater Sayville Civic Association. He also works on teams to support local charitable causes and writes periodically for the Suffolk County News. Joining with others to create environments that encourage citizens to take a more active role in civic, political and community life continues to direct his efforts.

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