A Referendum On Long Island’s Future

In today’s Newsday, it was announced that there will be a referendum on November’s ballot for a surcharge on water use on Long Island.   This surcharge of $1.00 for every 1000 gallons of water would generate $75 million a year in revenue.   These funds would support several efforts, each of which are crucial to Long Island’s future, essential to the survival of all its rivers, ponds, and bays, and required for the protection of our aquifer and our drinking water.

The Water Quality Protection Fee would address the nitrogen pollution crisis now threatening our drinking water, and destroying our marine and aquatic environments by funding the following efforts:

30% would be allocated for low interest loans and grants for onsite denitrification systems, which are meant to replace our cesspools and septic tanks.  This would be 21st Century technology replacing a ‘dig a hole in the ground’ approach that goes back to Roman times.  With 360,000 cesspools and septic tanks in Suffolk all leeching nitrogen into our groundwater and eventually into our bays,  it’s no wonder all our waters are on the way to dying, all listed by The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as Impaired, and hardly as surprise that nitrogen levels in our aquifer have gone up 200% since 1987.     The faster we replace these antiquated and polluting systems, the better the prospects are for our waters to recover, and for us to reap the many benefits of that — a return of shellfishing, clean beaches, a rebirth of our marshes and eel grass beds, swimmable waters, boating in clear water.  Suffolk County is now testing 19 such units with the aim of certifying them for use soon.   This model below, for instance, is being tested in Sayville.   Manufactured in volume, and right here on Long Island, the rollout of this system will create a lot of jobs,  helping, along with Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology, to make Long Island a global hub for waste water treatment technology solutions.  The $75 million per year that the Water Quality Protection Fee will be leveraged to spend several billion in infrastructure investment on such systems, and at the same time spawn an industry for Long Island, a factor voters need to consider when this referendum comes to a vote in November.

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Deploying such systems in conjunction with drainage fields seems a sure winner.   The gray water from these systems would water one’s lawns, with the remaining nitrogen feeding the soil, and the microbes in the soil treating the pharmaceuticals and household chemicals and other contaminants that would be in the waste water.   This is a new wrinkle in on site waste water treatment, and one we should look to deploy.   We don’t drain the aquifer (see below) and our lawns now are automatically fertilized with the water detoxified.

30% would be allocated for local clustered sewage systems and sewering hookups.   Many places in Suffolk should be sewered as well.   We need to make our Main Streets vibrant again.   Businesses should be able to expand more readily.   Apartments for the young and the carless, and the empty nesters who want to stay local need to be built.   Sewering can make for walkable towns, less sprawl, fewer cars on the road.  Sewering also has to happen in areas that sit at the water table, where on-site denitrification systems would prove impractical.  $383 million in funding has already been allocated to sewer along four major rivers leading to The Great South Bay — The Forge, The Patchogue, The Connetquot, and The Carll’s watershed in West Babylon and North Babylon.   This sewering effort would remove an estimated 15% of the nitrogen flowing into The Great South Bay.    We need to make sure that the sewer hookups are affordable to homeowners along the water.

Save The Great South Bay, working in conjunction with the Oakdale/West Sayville Community Reconstruction New York Rising Committee has in addition been calling for the sewer line from the Ronkonkoma Hub Project to be routed south through Sayville, West Sayville, and Oakdale, and on to the Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant, with the goal of sewering the low lying areas along the bay well enough that in time thousands of acres could be opened up for oystering again after many decades.   Taking this southern route would double cost of the line from $24 mil to $48 mil, but as we have contended, this would amount to an investment in the revitalization of a $500 mil/year shellfishing industry, built around oystering.   Our petition asking Suffolk County to “Route The Line South” is here if you wish to sign.

10% would be allocated for waste water treatment upgrades for towns and villages.   While everyone has heard of The Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant in Babylon, there are about 200 smaller local sewage treatment plants spread throughout the county.   Here’s a county map of them.   Needless to say, most are antiquated.   The effluent is not something we want in our waters.   I’d imagine that with $7.5 mil per year from the fee funding the remediation of these sites, that revenue stream (as with the others) could be leveraged significantly so that we could address this problem as aggressively as it needs to be addressed.

2.5% would go to the water utilities to cover the administrative costs of the fee collection itself.

The remainder, 27.5% by my calculation, would go towards paying for inspecting and maintaining these new systems, which when you are talking about 100K+ systems is no small matter, for public education on nitrogen pollution, and for funding the creation of a comprehensive local surface water and ground water plan.

On the education front, I would want Long Islanders to know a few things about how they could better improve Long Island’s water quality, while also lowering their bills.   Long Islanders use 50% more water than the U.S. average.   50% of our drinking water goes right on our lawns.   Given that we live on a sole source aquifer, this is incredibly irresponsible.   We are seeing salt water intrusion now particularly in Nassau County.    This is completely unsustainable — and now more costly, and rightly so.

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(Courtesy Prof. Sarah Meyland)

We are also contributing to nitrogen pollution through fertilizers — on our lawns, and on our farms.    While the contribution of nitrogen pollution from fertilizers is generally less than a quarter of what comes from cesspools when we look at our surface waters and ground water, the fact is we are poised to spend billions to address the waste water pollution problem.   In this light, the fertilizer manufacturers and the lawn care specialists and the farmers need to do their fair share in helping to reduce nitrogen loads.   It is incumbent upon them to come up with better farming and lawn care practices.   What crops require less fertilizer?  What could be planted that fixes nitrogen?   How do you develop products that stay in the root systems and don’t get washed out right into our waters with a good rain?   Farmers need to think about their fellow farmers on the water — the scallopers, the oystermen, the clammers, the fishermen.   Many thousands have lost their livelihoods because of poor water quality.   Finally, Long Islanders need to rethink what they plant on their properties and how it is cared for.   The best food for lawns is grass clippings, then mulched leaves.    We can and should have beautiful yards.  My beautiful yard would be full of bugs and the birds that eat them because I didn’t use pesticides.  It would be covered in local plantings, a Long Island yard.  And when it rained, I wouldn’t have to worry about what was in the runoff, and how that effected my neighbors and the waters nearby.

Together, we can revitalize Long Islands natural beauty, bring industry, restore our shellfishing and our fisheries, raise property values, and enjoy our waters again just as many of did who grew up here.   The cost?   $73 dollars a year for a family of four.   I’d say its worth it.  Please vote yes for this important Referendum in November.   Long Island, and your children and grandchildren are depending on you.

Those who are reflexively against taxes of any kind are robbing us of the future.  An engaged, active and informed citizenry will be the best means of assuring these funds are wisely and responsibly spent.   From what I see now with Save The Great South Bay, with 3600+ people joined and membership skyrocketing as spring has arrived, I’d say the people are ready to lead on this and support those politicians who have embraced the need to address the nitrogen problem head on.



  1. John Turner says:

    Marshall: Excellent overview of the issue. Hope the proposal makes eligible water reuse projects in which highly treated waste water is used again for irrigation thereby removing loads of nitrogen while simultaneously reducing stress on the aquifer system……

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