Originally posted with The Suffolk County News, June 20th. Reprinted with permission here.
By James Bertsch
SAYVILLE—Self-interest offers no solutions for pollution. In fact, it’s what caused it in the first place. We take shortcuts to maximize our benefits. Unfortunately, these short cuts accumulate until “we” end up spoiling our rivers and bays. The British economist William Forster Lloyd theorized about such shortcuts 200 years ago, calling it Tragedy of the Commons. All of us take from the commons. We never think about how all that taking adds up. The flowers of our shared spaces, in this case Mill Pond in Sayville, have nearly wilted. And it’s due to the nitrates and phosphates from “our” cesspools and fertilizers.
One would think our leaders would help us clean our waterways, especially since our drinking water comes from beneath us. Yet, some of them aren’t. Consider the case of Suffolk County comptroller John Kennedy. Kennedy is challenging Bellone in an upcoming election for county executive. Bellone led the Suffolk County Legislature in passing a law, to take effect on July 1, that requires septic-cesspool systems (not just cesspools) or nitrogen systems. The nitrogen systems are partially funded by grants. What did Kennedy do? He taxed the grants on the nitrogen systems, an action largely without precedent. In the June 6, 2019 edition of this newspaper, homeowners Josephine and Howard Brennan applied, qualified for and then received a $10,000 grant for a $26,000 system. Kennedy then sent them a $1500 tax bill! Given that 70 percent of the nitrates killing the bay come from cesspools, Kennedy’s taxing of an environmental cleanup boggles the mind. I guess he doesn’t live near Mill Pond.
The damage done to the once bucolic Mill Pond is tragic. This pond used to freeze each winter, leading the fire department to set up lights for winter skating under the stars. More tragic is the damage this creek (Browns Creek West Branch) and others like it do when they flow into the Great South Bay. A shadow of its former self, the Great South Bay once produced three-quarters of the nation’s clams. Its bountiful harvest helped locals feed their families from the time of the Algonquins until the 1980s. If we are to really turn the tide, to restore our commons, we must understand the problem and begin working towards a solution.
On Saturday, May 18, members of Save the Great South Bay, Sayville Rotary, neighbors, and high school students removed 200 pounds of trash from Mill Pond. This is part of the SGSB Creek Defender Program. Yet, the SGSB-led feel-good project was also instructive. We filmed the Browns Creek West Branch from where it begins on Sunrise Highway all the way to Montauk Highway. Nearly 20 students, from Ms. O’Reilly’s class in Connetquot High School and Mrs. Brown’s Sweep Club in Sayville High School, tested the stream and pond’s nitrate and phosphate levels. Per video footage, we discovered nitrate-fed algae choking the flow of water. Students also found that nitrate levels are nearly at levels the Department of Environmental Conservation deems dangerous. Actual findings will be released on https://www.facebook.com/groups/Savethegreatsouthbay/.
Cesspools are the main culprit. Yet, 10 percent of the damage is self-inflicted from fertilizer usage. Save the Great South Bay and a coalition of community groups lobbied the New York Senate to sign bill S2130 into law. This bill and its NYS Assembly counterpart seek to reduce the nitrate levels of fertilizers used on Long Island to “not more than 12 percent nitrogen by weight.” That would be a good start.
Indeed, limiting the nitrate levels of fertilizers were early parts of restoring Tampa Bay, Fla., and the Chesapeake Bay, Va. Tampa has experienced tremendous economic and environmental growth, including a booming $2 billion annually in commerce and the restoration of waters to their pristine 1950’s levels. Thanks to progressive environmental measures, the Chesapeake Bay is on the same path: juvenile blue claw crab numbers doubled in 2019 while the bay’s crabs are at their most plentiful levels in seven years. In other words, our situation is not hopeless. Our bay can once again be an employer. It can be pristine again. But “we” must work together.
While elected officials like comptroller Kennedy work against us, community leaders and residents from nearly 15 South Shore communities are working together. Under the banner of Save the Great South Bay’s Creek Defender program, “we” are stepping up to clean our creeks. And planning is well underway for the second phase of creek cleanups, which consists of planting native plants and grasses to filter out contaminants from runoff. Waterside natives are also planted as a buffer to protect homes from winter storms, like the natives the Greater Sayville Civic Association planted this spring on Greene’s Creek. “We” are taking the lead to clean up our problem. We need our leaders to follow.
It’s time we end this tragedy. It’s time we bring back the flowers. Our children’s future depends on it. And we owe it to them to restore what many once thought was forever lost.