Can Long Island Be Saved, Part V: Cuomo's Initiative to Water Quality and Coastal Resilience

Nitrogen Pollution: The Big Problem


The last several weeks have been very busy ones for Long Island's marine scientists, for our environmental non-profits and for the local, state and federal officials. Governor Cuomo's initiative to improve water quality and resiliency on Long Island has brought together a diverse set of experts and policy makers who having looked at the science, have all concluded that Long Islands waters are in grave condition, and that our drinking water is imperiled because we have 500,000 septic tanks and antiquated sewage treatment plants. The nitrogen seepage from that is driving brown tide, red tide, rust tide, and blue green algal blooms all over Long Island, to the extent now the DEC has declared that all our waters are impaired.

The die offs of vegetation (marshes, eel grass, sea grass) and wildlife (fish, shellfish, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles) have been stunning. Whole habitats are vanishing before our eyes. At the same time, that nitrogen is seeping ever more deeply into our drinking water into the aquifer that sits below us, with water deposited there by glacier melt eons ago.

Not only are nitrogen rates rising, but the rate of the rise is too, as the plume of nitrogen created by the explosive population growth on Post War Long Island, much unsewered, has generated a plume of nitrogen that is now making its way downward into our drinking water.

As Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone said in his State of the County Speech March 5th, 2014, "Nitrogen poisoning of our surface and groundwaters is the greatest crisis this county has faced in generations." We see now as a result everyone at every level focused on this issue. If Long Island loses its natural beauty, and its natural resource (water) then what happens to Long Island?

Another important issue on the water quality docket has been the rampant use of high nitrogen lawn fertilizers. Long Islanders love our lawns. We invented the suburban lawn. Now we need to reinvent it. Add more nitrogen, the drinking water will eventually suffer. During a rain storm, that lawn fertilizer washes right into our bays, helping to trigger algal blooms. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has established a "Go Green Organic Yard" Program, with a list of all participating service providers. Save The Great South Bay has posted an interactive mapshowing their locations (viewable so far only with Chrome and Firefox. We are coming up with views for other browsers).

Then there are the pesticides and the pharmaceuticals and the household chemicals. We now can find 117 different pesticides on our waters. We don't dispose properly of our pharmaceuticals and household hazardous waste. This is how people get sick and die, how we destroy where we live.

Can Long Island Be Saved?

Three of the four planned meetings called for by Governor Cuomo on Long Island Resiliency and Clean Water Infrastructure have now been held. The first was May 12th, which I wrote about here.

On May 19th, the second of the four 'Long Island Resiliency and Clean Water Infrastructure' meetings was held 12-4 at Stony Brook. There were 18 speakers.

The third was May 28th between 12-6:30. There were about 20 speakers followed by at least a dozen people from the public offering their comments.


For me, the key takeaways are these:

1. We are agreed on the main diagnosis -- nitrogen seepage from 500,000 septic tanks / cesspools in Nassau and Suffolk is rapidly killing off all our marshes, our bays, rivers and ponds. Its also seeping down into our drinking water, and at an accelerating rate. New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation now rates all of Long Island's waters as impaired. We are truly in a race against time.

2. We all agree, broadly speaking, on the solution -- sewering, combined with leading edge treatment systems for homes or clusters.

3. To fix this problem, billions will have to be spent, and quickly. There are 500,000 septic tanks / cesspools to remediate. If we assume a cost of $20,000 per that takes us quickly to $10 billion. The thought is that we should focus on the top 100,000 most problematic first, but that would still be an enormous project.

4. The nitrogen problem is both a water pollution problem and a public safety problem. Recent research published both by Professor Christopher Gobler and the NYSDEC prove the definitive link between high levels of nitrogen in our waters and the collapsing of our salt marshes along all of Long Island's shorelines. Only by improving water quality drastically will we be able to restore the marshes that would serve as a natural infrastructure against future storms.

5. The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant is destroying the marshes in The Western Bay because 58,000,000 gallons of nitrogen rich effluent empties out from it every day. The latest news from Washington is that FEMA has denied New York State's request for $690 million to fund an outfall pipe to go with the $730 million already allotted to build a state-of-the art replacement plant.

This has been a local issue that environmental groups like Operation Splash!, The Citizen's Campaign For The Environment, and The Nature Conservancy has been assessing for ten years. The outfall pipe plan, with its sewering of Long Beach and its consolidating several smaller systems, would pipe the effluent, which would have received tertiary treatment at a new $730 million state of the art facility three miles out into the ocean. With the pipe, it would continue to discharge into Reynolds Channel, and with that finish off The Western Bays, killing the remaining marshes and making the shore residents far more vulnerable.

Some, for instance New Jersey Surfrider offers that an outfall pipe should not be built under any circumstances, that the treated waste water could be recharged into the aquifer instead. Two quick points about that. It was tried at Cedar Creek, and the results were not good. Force injecting even tertiary treated water into your aquifer is not a good idea. In the case of Bay Park, that would 58,000,000 gallons a day, the equivalent of an EXXON Valdez. The other suggestion is to reuse that waste water for irrigation and industrial purposes. But that is A LOT of waste water to sell and distribute per day. Are we talking about 10% or 5.8 million gallons a day eventually? All to the good, but we still got over 50 million gallons a day to work with. We could put another 10,000 trucks on the road to move all that water around, then again. The outfall pipe completes the saving of The Western Bays. Sub optimal? Yes. But the great can't be the enemy of the good, especially when the 'great' -- obviating the need for an outfall pipe by a 100% reuse of all waste water -- has no real plan associated with it.

6 . All Long Islanders -- that includes businesses, golf courses -- should switch to organic fertilizer /mulching and stop using pesticides. Off West Sayville, a study of the bay water was done. It was determined that 32% of the nitrogen coming into the bay from there is from "turf." That means lawns and golf courses. Nitrogen is what triggered the brown tide that killed the eel grass, and with that wiped out clamming. Why are we putting this stuff on our lawns any more? What we put on the ground goes into our drinking water and our bays eventually. Sewering/ installing on site green septic systems will take 5-10 years between planning, funding, and installing. By then there may not be a bay left. Therefore we as Long Islanders all need to cut way back on the nitrogen loads we create with these potent artificial fertilizers. They do a great job of making brown tide, red tide, and rust tide grow.

The next map that Save The Great South Bay will produce will be of all the sustainable vineyards, organic farms, organic restaurants, and local green markets. Long Islanders should do everything they can to support organic and sustainable farming and eating local. The North Fork is starting to look like Napa. Our soil out east is rich and the weather is mild. Suffolk County is the #1 agricultural county in the state. It should remain that way, but how and what we grow must indeed change as we confront our water quality issues. For a farmer to switch either crops or methods, there's risk. The public, and to whatever extent the county, state, or federal government should have programs that support such conversions.

7. Sustainability needs to be the overall goal. As we roll out an upgraded waste water treatment infrastructure, we need to protect our remaining open spaces. If the new sewer system allowed for much more high density development, how does that help Long Islanders? Do we not spend enough time sitting on the LIE? Isn't getting in and out of Penn enough of a scrum? Long Island's air quality is at an "F." If sewering brings in smart green sustainable construction as well, fine. There's billions in fixing what is already built. But when Nassau and Suffolk's population density would be #4 in the world next to Bangladesh if it were its own country, we need to rebuild wisely, try keep what green space is left, and restore what we've damaged.

8. There is much we can do today while we are waiting on the planning, financing, and deployment of a 21st Century waste water infrastructure. It could be 10 years before things get built. We can't afford to sit passively by. We need to address all the other sources of water pollution we have aside from the septic tanks -- lawn and agricultural fertilizers, golf courses, pesticides, household chemicals and unused pharmaceuticals. How healthy are the local ponds and streams? Maybe you could adopt one. Maybe in those towns that will eventually be sewered, we look to replace the lowest lying cesspools, the ones failing, the ones closest to the water with something modern and on site that could extract most of the nitrogen. The last places to be sewered perhaps be where we start. Some sort of loan/financing plan should be in place. Such a modernization would enhance the property's value and would perhaps be required upon the sale of the property, as it is in Rhode Island.

9. The Army Corps of Engineers needs to update their whole approach to shoring up our coasts to protect us against future storms. When the money from The Sandy Relief Fund hit, it meant that a number of beach replenishment projects that had been approved but not undertaken by the Corps for lack of funds could now be done. The USGS estimated that Fire Island lost 50% of its sand with Sandy. Clearly sand needs to be replenished and the coastline rebuilt.

But with all we are learning now about coastal ecosystems, and how they provide a natural defense against storm damage, with the fact that rebuilding marshland, shellfish beds, and retreating from the sea are core recommendations in Gov. Cuomo's NY2100 Plan, it seems rash to have $3.9 billion spent on moving sand when perhaps it would be more effective to invest some of that money in habitat restoration. We know oyster reefs can both calm waters and clean them. Each filters 50 gallons a day; millions in a reef make for a great storm barrier. The corps should be more willing to let breaches on Fire Island alone; the breach at Old Inlet in Bellport Bay could not be closed immediately after Sandy because it happened on National Park Services land. As a result, there has been a marine renaissance in Bellport Bay. Further, the breach is helping to replenish sand on Fire Island's bay side, for this his what breaches do -- they help thicken the island as it shifts. The long standing policy has been, literally, to hold a line in the sand, to shovel sand against the sea. We need to work with nature rather than trying to fight it, especially when we are building castles on sand.

It comes down to this: Both FIMP (The Fire Island to Montauk Point) Initiative and The Breach Contingency Plan are based on outdated scientific assumptions. We have only just discovered, for instance that excess nitrogen in our ground water that is killing off the last of our marshes, and with that an important natural defense against storms and flooding. Shouldn't the Army Corps' efforts reflect these new observations? The Breach Contingency Plan was drafted in response to a 1992 storm that created Pikes Inlet. What does one do in the event of a breach? What are the procedures? The plan was put into place in 1996. It was due to expire but was extended in 2001, and then again in 2006. It is in severe need of revisiting, given how much better we understand barrier beach dynamics, the nature of breaches than in 1992. That plan needs to be replaced with one that reflects the current science, or we might, by the force of inertia, waste some of our precious reconstruction funds on something that is suboptimal or even counterproductive. At this rate, habitat restoration is going to be an enormous industry, starting on Long Island, and the corps will have plenty to do around that for the foreseeable future. This will take armies of people to repair.

11. Long Island is hellbent on becoming the global hub for 21st Century waste water treatment solutions, along with community sustainability. Governor Cuomo, along with our county executives, and people like Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, and crucially Stony Brook University all understand that since Long Island is going to have to come up with a comprehensive many billion dollar solution to its water quality problems, Long Island could in turn be the place where that solution is in turn offered to other communities around the world that are facing the same issues. What's the best way to build a modern sewage treatment plant? The $730 million secured to rebuild Bay Park will help answer that. We will be rebuilding shoreline and habitat, raising homes, piloting new septic technologies where much of the nitrogen can be processed at the residence, incubating companies in the waste water treatment space.

12. Since public awareness is crucial to our efforts succeeding, all levels of government need to do a much better job of sharing their information with the general public. Information about the meetings -- their times and places -- went out quite late, with a little confusion thrown in. I believe however that we shouldn't be concerned about this issue going forward. Public support, again, is crucial, and they overwhelmingly want the same things that our environmental agencies, non-profits, and public officials want -- clean waters for future generations. The more forthright and open the discussions are, the more successful will be the effort towards developing a workable plan to save Long Island.

13. Nassau and Suffolk need to have a united and comprehensive plan drafted akin to Mayor Bloomberg's PLANYC 2030 or the NY 2100 Plan. This gets back to sustainability, to building a viable future for Long Island. As the IBM Smarter Cities Team begins its three week engagement with Suffolk County, the county having won $500K in consulting from IBM to tackle the waste water issue, they should keep an eye toward the bigger question -- how do you build the future on Long Island? What new technologies will enter the market over the next 20 years that can change Long Island? Wireless sensors, self-driving cars, green buildings, alternative energy production. IBM and its Smarter Cities practice is trying in countries around the world to invent the future. Long Island needs that kind of long term visionary planning.

14. Funding will be a major challenge. The price tag for reinventing Long Island for the 21st Century will be in the multiple billions. But if we had a comprehensive plan, a road map, a regional development plan, on that imagined a Long Island 20 years from now as we would have it, funding it becomes easier. It becomes an investment.

15. After a flurry of meetings in May we remain optimistic.