Water Quality Issues, Summer 2013, Long Island via SCERP

What’s Wrong With The Bay?


Algal Blooms Across Long Island -- Courtesy of SCERP
Algal Blooms Across Long Island — Courtesy of SCERP

The Great South Bay suffers largely from the fact that over the past 50 years, the population of Long Island quadrupled, and without the necessary planning that was required to make Long Island sustainable.   Development trumped all else.   Now if you take Nassau and Suffolk County together and made that a separate country, it would be the fourth most densely populated in the world.   Did we ever make any provisions for this population explosion in terms of sewage and runoff infrastructure?   Marsh and woodland habitats were destroyed, homes were built in flood prone areas, bulkheading fenced in the bay.   Hundreds of thousands of septic tanks were buried in Long Island’s sandy, porous soil, another 195 local sewage treatment facilities, another 1300+ large scale septic tanks, and the ecological disaster also known as The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant all  polluting our ground water with nitrogenous waste.   This nitrogenous waster has been seeping with increasing intensity into The Great South Bay, triggering the massive algal blooms we see today.   In 1985, the first brown tide came.   Now it is an annual occurrence, with each year being worse than the last.

With brown tide came the wholesale destruction of eelgrass, essential habitat for hard shell clams and fin fish.    The brown tide made the water murky, blocked the sun.  Now we have about 1% of the clams we had in the bay in the ’70’s, when the bay was producing 50% of the hard shell clams eaten in this country.   Along with the increasingly polluted ground water triggering the algal blooms and destroying the bay’s habitats, we were also over harvesting clams from the bay.   In 1976, it was estimated that the clams in the bay were filtering 40% of the bay’s water EACH DAY.   With the bay ‘clammed out,’ the brown tide came to finish things off.    The bay was over clammed for two reasons — people needed the work, and there was no effort among the towns of Brookhaven, Islip, and Babylon to manage their harvesting.  Clam permits were revenue, and in tough economic times, the towns issued as many as were requested.

Beyond the antiquated or non existent sewage infrastructure, there’s also the 2000+ outfall pipes pouring polluted runoff into our lakes and streams then eventually into our bays.    There’s the hundred or so dams and spillways, most erected over a hundred years ago, that have systematically cut off our inland waterways from our bays, including The Great South Bay, so that ocean fish like alewife and herring can no longer spawn inland.

Then there is the additional nitrogen load in our ground water that comes from our fetish with the modern suburban lawn, something practically invented on Long Island.   High nitrogen lawn and agricultural fertilizers are akin kerosene on a fire, when it comes to algal blooms.   Whatever we are spreading on our lawns doesn’t stay there that long, but goes right into the nearest stream, pond, river and bay after a good rain.  Septic tanks — a 19th Century technology — may contribute to 60% of the nitrogenous waste problem, but fertilizer adds another 15% or so, and in agricultural areas out east, the contribution in certain areas is much higher.

Finally, there are the toxins we are adding into the bay.   Storm runoff will have its share of oil, salt, and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), but there are 254 former Superfund clean up sites scattered across Long Island that still leach into our ground water, and 117 different pesticides as well, a result of our desire to kill every ‘pest’ imaginable, to the detriment of our birds, reptiles, amphibians, and yes, our humans.   That all makes its way into The Great South Bay, and all our bays, and into our drinking water, and ultimately into the bodies of the 2.8 million people who call Long Island their home.    How that is contributing to Long Island’s high cancer rates is yet to be determined, but it’s hard to imagine they are not a factor.

So what is to be done?

Save The Great South Bay proposes:

  • A voluntary citizen’s moratorium on the use of high nitrogen fertilizers.  There are green alternatives for farmers and for lawn care.
  • ‘Green’ means of pest control.   No more pesticides!  Dragon flies eat mosquitoes.  So do frogs, fish, etc.
  • Removing the outfall pipes and the dams that now pour polluted waters into our estuaries and eventually into The Great South Bay and into all our bays.
  • That Long Island adopt 21st Century waste water management / septic systems, and with the requisite urgency.   Such a conversion will of course cost billions, but LI is worth so much more than that if it’s waters are vibrant, teeming and healthy.

We need to invest in Long Island to ensure its future for our children and grandchildren, so that they too can fish, clam, swim, boat, and raise their families as we had.
Feel free to contact us with your questions and comments.   It will take all of Long Island to save our bay.