Wastewater Wreckage

During the last 25 years, the South Bay of the Long Island Sound has seen it’s clam harvest decline by 93 percent, destroying an entire industry which accounted for 6,000 jobs. According to the Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, the clams couldn’t recover from previous harvests because of recurrent brown tides fed primarily from nitrogen from septic systems and cesspools. Clams harvested here used to account for half of our nation’s clams.
In 2008, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) declared Long Island’s entire 60-mile long South Shore Estuary Reserve impaired. Between 1974-2001, NYSDEC found that there was an 18 to 36 percent loss of tidal wetlands. Wetlands serve as a line of defense against storms and storm surges and can reduce wave height by 80 percent over short distances.
The county is determined to find a solution to the problem of high nitrogen levels as a result of decades-long pollution to the waterways and groundwater. At this point they have determined that the largest polluter is conventional residential onsite septic systems and cesspools which discharge to groundwater. The secondary polluter is lawn fertilizer.
Suffolk County has 350,000 conventional septic systems and cesspools, which accounts for more than 75 percent of the homes in the county. This accounts for 1.5 million people who are on these systems. The report states, “When flooded or submerged in groundwater, septic systems do not function as designed and they fail to adequately treat pathogens. Excess nitrogen from this sewage threatens our valuable natural resources, coastal defenses, and human health.”
The County has prioritized the issue to homes with septic systems or cesspools which are within the 0-25 year contributing area to surface water and have less than 10 feet separating their systems from the water table. According to the report, this accounts for 30,250 homes.
We have been told that the county is testing different technologies to treat and remove the nitrogen although it hasn’t been disclosed which technologies are being tested.


As a part of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s ‘Reclaim our Water’ initiative, a video contest was announced with the goal of increasing awareness about the damage caused by the high nitrogen levels, how septic systems and cesspools contribute to nitrogen in surface waters, and possible new technologies to combat the issue. The contest also wants to highlight how other activities and technologies can combat nitrogen levels and what citizen volunteers can do to help. Winners will have their work screened on September 22 for SepticSmart week.
Suffolk County is working with Peconic Green Growth, an environmental organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of natural resources, which has developed a three-pronged approach toward educating the public on the benefits of decentralized cluster and single wastewater treatment solutions for existing communities.


To help fund their water quality efforts, Suffolk County was awarded a grant from IBM. On May 15, the Suffolk County Legislature also announced the appropriation of $60,050 to develop an engineering report for the potential development of Suffolk County’s first ever wastewater treatment solution for existing neighborhoods. The project targets seven districts within the Orient Point community, potentially impacting 572 homes, resulting in a significant decrease of nitrogen pollution by 50 percent and is funded through the ¼ percent sales tax Water Quality Protection and Restoration Program.
Later in May, the county announced additional funding to address their nitrogen fertilizer reduction initiative. The funding ensures all Suffolk County licensed landscapers attend an educational course on the harmful environmental impacts of improper application of fertilizers as well as funds for education and public outreach to residents on the harmful effects of misuse of fertilizers.
In June, the county leaders announced their support for a proposed referendum to be put before the voters in November, which will “help provide Suffolk County budget flexibility to hold the line on taxes.”
“This is another major step forward in our efforts to address Suffolk County’s water quality crisis,” said County Executive Steve Bellone. The referendum would authorize nearly $30 million to restore environmental funds in order to protect open space and support other clean water infrastructure projects including expanding sewers and installing improved onsite systems. It will also allow the county to move forward with the $46 million Sewer Infrastructure Fund which is helping to advance critical projects to improve clean water infrastructure such as combating red tide in Northport Harbor and reducing nitrogen pollution flowing into the Peconic Bay.
Bellone is also putting forward a Charter Amendment which would resolve a longstanding fight by stating that any changes to any part of the Drinking Water Protection Program can only be accomplished via mandatory referendum.
“We all agree that addressing our water quality is job number one,” said Richard Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “I want to thank the County Executive and Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory for their leadership.”
“Suffolk County and environmental groups agreed that the focus must be how to move forward to address our water quality,” said Bob DeLuca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End. “What this settlement will do is suspend the on-going litigation and petition campaign so that we can all push together and move forward with more and better protection for our water quality.”
According to the release, the referendum would also allow utilizing the Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund (ASRF) to provide tax relief. The ASRF presently has a $140 million balance, is far greater than its historic balances of approximately $30 million, which is used to stabilize tax rates throughout Suffolk County’s sewer districts at 3 percent. The referendum will allow Suffolk County to borrow from the ASRF’s surplus during 2014-2017 in order to preserve services and hold taxes within the tax cap while mandating that the ASRF must be repaid beginning in 2018 in order to ensure the fund can meet all its current and future obligations.
While the citizens of Suffolk County work out the funding, it will be interesting to see which technologies emerge to help fix the nitrogen problem.

story by Jennifer Taylor

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