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NY Times, May 8 2017
‘Dead Rivers, Closed Beaches’: A Water Crisis on Long Island
By LISA W. FODERARO
OAKDALE, N.Y. — The Great South Bay, flanked by Fire Island and the
South Shore of Long Island, once produced half the shellfish consumed in
the United States, and supported 6,000 jobs in the early 1970s.
Since then, the health of the bay has declined. Housing development
meant more septic tanks depositing more nitrogen in the ground. The
nitrogen flowed to rivers and the Great South Bay, leading to algae
blooms. It depleted salt marshes that serve as fish habitat and
suppressed oxygen levels.
One result is that the shellfish industry has all but collapsed. The
annual harvest of hard clams, for example, has fallen more than 90
percent since 1980.
After sweeping legislation that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed in April,
Suffolk County and other local governments in New York are hoping to
deal with their aging — or absent — sewer lines, drinking water systems
and other water infrastructure. The law, the Clean Water Infrastructure
Act, allocates $2.5 billion to a variety of projects, as concerns about
the safety of drinking water are growing.
Across the United States, impressive gains in water quality were made in
the decades after passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. But courts
have generally ruled that the federal law was designed to address
surface water contamination, and are divided about its application to
tainted groundwater. As a result, problems from industrial pollution and
untreated sewage have persisted.
The water quality problem is acute in Suffolk County. With 360,000
septic systems, Suffolk has roughly the same number as all of New
Jersey. For years, nitrogen from leaky septic tanks has seeped into
groundwater and eventually into rivers and bays.
“What we have been doing for decades is just managing the decline of
water quality,” said Steven Bellone, the Suffolk County executive.
“Every water body is listed as impaired. We have dead rivers, closed
beaches, harmful algal blooms.”
Before signing the law on Long Island in late April, Mr. Cuomo noted
that a quarter of New York’s 610 sewage treatment plants were operating
past their useful life.
“We’re living off the legacy not of our parents but of our
grandparents,” he said.
The new state act, which spans five years, will among other things
provide $1.5 billion in grants for water infrastructure improvements,
$75 million in rebates to help homeowners replace septic systems and
$110 million to protect land in watersheds. The money significantly
expands a similar state infrastructure fund that over the last few years
made $400 million available to communities.
In addition to the new water infrastructure financing, the state budget
allotted $40 million to build two sewer systems in business districts on
the North Shore in Suffolk County. And there was $5 million for Suffolk
County and the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook
University to develop new methods of removing contaminants from drinking
While it was one of the more significant investments to emerge from the
state budget, some say it should be viewed as a down payment. Steve
Englebright, a state assemblyman who heads the Environmental
Conservation Committee, has said $80 billion to $100 billion is required
to address the state’s aging water infrastructure.
On Long Island, which is already grappling with hazardous waste at
scores of active Superfund sites, the geology poses special challenges.
With scant wastewater treatment, Suffolk County sits atop an aquifer
that provides virtually all of its drinking water, and the sandy soil
allows nitrogen to seep into it.
Nassau County, just west of Suffolk, has many more homes using sewers
than Suffolk, where 75 percent of the population relies on septic
systems. The main reason that a county as populous as Suffolk has
remained on septic systems, county officials say, is the legacy of the
last attempt at installing a system — the infamous Southwest Sewer District.
The sewer system, covering parts of the towns of Islip and Babylon, was
eventually built. But the project, which started coming on line in 1981,
became so mired in corruption, delays and cost overruns that it spooked
future elected officials.
“It was the biggest scandal in the county’s history,” Mr. Bellone said.
“The appetite politically to do anything on this issue was nonexistent
after that. It effectively killed sewering here for decades.”
Suffolk County is eager to catch up to Nassau on wastewater treatment,
but officials say new sewer systems are prohibitively expensive. One
project on the drawing board, for instance, will cover about 8,200
parcels bordering four rivers that feed into the Great South Bay. The
price tag is $383 million.
Instead, the county’s strategy is to coax homeowners to replace
antiquated septic tanks with high-tech “denitrification systems” — small
units that cost more than older septic systems but remove most of the
nitrogen from wastewater. Mr. Bellone said Suffolk hoped to tap the new
state fund to help property owners acquire the systems.
Suffolk officials have laid the groundwork for the new type of
individual systems, which cost $15,000 to $20,000. Using a lottery, the
county offered 19 homeowners free units and studied their performance.
Officials have also written new regulations to allow the technology and
provided training to contractors.
When the water infrastructure law was enacted, Suffolk was set to start
a denitrification pilot program. The idea was to make grants and
low-interest loans available to 400 homeowners whose properties are in
sensitive areas. Mr. Bellone now sees the potential to “bump up the
pilot even further,” to perhaps 5,000 homes.
The challenge, however, is persuading homeowners to replace their septic
“The problem with an old system is that unless it’s manifesting itself
in some physical fashion, with waste bubbling to the surface, most
people don’t know their system is failing,” Mr. Bellone said.
Nitrogen is more harmful to coastal ecosystems than to sources of
drinking water. According to Christopher Gobler, a professor in the
School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, the
federal standard for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but
anything above one milligram per liter will have an impact on coastal
waters. In Suffolk County, the average concentration of nitrogen in
groundwater is four milligrams per liter, he said.
Dr. Gobler, a co-director of the Center for Clean Water Technology, said
septic tanks, and even more primitive cesspools, had no mechanism for
“When it’s working perfectly, it’s perfectly transferring the nitrogen
to the groundwater, and that nitrogen triggers a series of events in the
bay,” explained Dr. Gobler, whose center is developing new passive
systems to remove nitrogen.
Richard Remmer is the third generation of his family to own the Snapper
Inn, a restaurant in the hamlet of Oakdale on a bank of the Connetquot
River in Islip. “Thirty years ago, all of our clams came from the bay,”
he said. “Today, it’s zero.”
Like other residents near the bay in Islip, Mr. Remmer is desperate for
a sewer system. The water table is so high here, he said, that some
septic systems sit in water, and residents must choose between showering
or doing laundry because drainage is so poor.
Suffolk has hired an engineering firm to design a sewer line that would
run beneath Montauk Highway, serving a few of Islip’s hamlets, from
Oakdale to Sayville.
Peter Scully, a deputy county executive and Suffolk’s water czar, said
that the sewer trunk alone would run to $45 million, and that
connections to several thousand houses could reach $450 million. But
given the high water table, sewers make more sense than individual
systems, he said.
The project, as yet unfunded, could benefit from the new state
financing. “We’ll be looking to get every dollar we can out of the $2.5
billion,” Mr. Scully said.
Ultimately, officials say, Suffolk County needs recurring revenue to
subsidize new sewers and individual denitrification units, whether a
surcharge on water bills or some other tax. The new state money is
significant, Mr. Bellone said, but not sufficient, given the needs
across the state’s 62 counties.
“Over the next 20 years, I’d like to see that we’ve resolved this
crisis,” he said. “It’s taken decades to get here, but I think from
where I sit today, we can solve this in one generation.”
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