On November 13th, 2013, The Suffolk County Legislature voted 13-3 to raid the Drinking Water Protection Program to the tune of almost $33 million dollars in order to balance the budget.   This was unacceptable then, and now.   The fund was established in 1987 by a voter referendum in Suffolk County via a sales tax increase, and was earmarked for water protection only.   It was renewed 5 times by voters since then.   This wasn’t the first time funds were diverted;  In 2011, County Executive Steven Levy used $20 million from the fund to balance his budget.

It is only legal and proper that these funds be returned so that Suffolk County and County Executive Steven Bellone’s office can focus on the enormous task of dealing with Long Island’s water quality issues.   With that, The Pine Barrens Society, joined by other local environmental groups, has filed suit to have these funds returned.  With 360,000 septic tanks leeching nitrogenous waste into our ground water, billions will need to be spent on sewering and on modernizing a 19th Century infrastructure.   As it stands, our drinking water is threatened, and the polluted ground water is systematically killing all our bays, ponds, and rivers by triggering massive algal blooms.   The County cannot ask the public for more money — a lot more money – on one hand while on the other taking that money out to paper over budget shortfalls.   It marks a violation of public trust.

The good news is the County Executive’s office has now recognized that  (1 ) the ground water pollution issues caused by this footprint of antiquated septic tanks is the biggest threat that Suffolk County has faced in decades, and that (2) the claim that the funds were improperly diverted has merit and that the County intends to restore the funds taken in the coming years.   In just three short months, with the release of the Comprehensive Water Management Plan, the county is ready to do the right thing.

Long Islanders should be very much encouraged that public officials have come to understand and embrace the science, which tells us that action on waste water treatment is urgently needed, even as we need to right some budgetary wrongs.

Here is the Newsday article:

Suffolk sued for diverting $33 million in water funds

In addition, here is Save The Great South Bay’s testimony before the County Legislature from that 13-3 vote in November:

“Good afternoon. My name is Marshall Brown. I am Executive Director of Save The Great South Bay, an organization founded August 2012. We have almost 1000 people in our Facebook Group, and are part of the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, which was launched September 2013, and which has now over 125 organizations.

My organization and the partnership have both grown explosively because we cherish Long Island, and want to see its waters protected and restored. Crucially, we are all looking at the same science, and that science is telling us that if we don’t address our water quality issues now and today, all our waters will be lifeless before too long, wiped out by brown tide, rust tide, red tide, and blue green algae, which thrive on the nitrogenous waste that is seeping into them from our ground water.

A Long Island without healthy waters will be a much diminished thing, affecting real estate prices and tourism enormously. For that reason alone, the decision to raid a fund dedicated to addressing our sewage issues would be economically disastrous.

When I was growing up in Sayville, the Great South Bay employed 6500 clam diggers. We supplied 50% of all the hard shell clams consumed in this country. Since then harvests have declined by 99%. We have seen similar collapses in fin fish populations. Virtually every bay on Long Island has a similar story. The good news is we have the science to turn this around. The bad news is we apparently don’t have the political interest or will to do so.

The science here is clear – the main culprit, what is now rapidly killing all our waters are the 400,000 septic tanks scattered throughout the county. It’s the nitrogen that is fueling the blooms as it seeps into our groundwater and reaches our bays. It is no exaggeration to say that Long Island’s water quality crisis could be the biggest environmental story of 2014. Newsday has been reporting on it extensively, The Wall Street Journal is weighing in, it’s being reported in The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, and The Huffington Post. Both Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand are eager to help us address our sewage issues. We have the support of a number of state and local officials as well.
Rather than raiding the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund to paper over a budget shortfall, this body should be seeking ways to fund clean tech initiatives so that we can enjoy the economic and social benefits of a sustainable Long Island. The Long Island Clean Water Partnership, along with the hundreds of marine and environmental scientists and public advocates within its membership, have diagnosed the problem, and have the solutions.

The only question is whether our political leadership is ready to act on the science. To ignore the problem, to undermine it, would help complete what is an environmental and economic disaster. I urge you to vote for Long Island’s future.”