If Long Island is to be saved, and by "saved" I mean preserved as a desirable place to live for future generations, then everybody in Nassau and Suffolk needs to understand why our drinking water and all our rivers, ponds and bays are imperiled. Lets begin with the premise that if people really understand the problems, and what is at stake, they will do the sensible thing and do what is necessary to protect and restore Long Island's estuarine and marine environments.
But how does one in fact reach the 3 million people of Long Island? How many today know that the main issue facing both our drinking water and the health of our bays, rivers, and ponds, is nitrogen leeching from the 500,000 cesspools and septic tanks that currently sit in our sandy soil? How many know that this excess nitrogen has been feeding algal blooms in our waters that have gotten both larger and more diverse with every passing year? How many know that our waters are dying as a result?
How will every Long Islander come to appreciate how our love affair with our lawns is contributing to the nitrogen problem? How will they know that the fertilizers and pesticides that they are putting on their lawns also ends up in our bays and our drinking water? How can they come to know that our fetish for perfect, artificial lawns is depleting our aquifer, our drinking water supply, that this water, left by ancient glaciers, is being wasted on our lawns at the expense of future generations? How can all Long Islanders come to understand that as we pump water out of the aquifer at irresponsible, unsustainable rates, we are exacerbating the process of saltwater intrusion, that wells are being shut down as the salt water seeps in?
The average Long Islander uses 50 gallons more per day than the American average of 100, all for our lawns. If people knew this, would they stop watering their lawns? Would they choose to save that water for future generations, their children and grandchildren? I think we can assume and must hope that indeed most would.
Given the scale of this environmental crisis, one would think that it would be much more broadly reported. Long Island, which constitutes much of suburban New York, needs many billions in waste water infrastructure if it is to save its bays, rivers, and ponds and preserve a way of life that centers around the beach, fishing, sailing, swimming, surfing, paddle boarding, and the beauty of being on the water. IBM Smarter Cities estimates that it will take $8 billion to address the issue in Suffolk County alone, where there are 360,000 outdated cesspools and septic tanks? This IBM produced video, almost two years old now, has only received around 1400 views so far.
Shouldn't more people be viewing this, given that the future of Long Island is very much at stake given the level of nitrogen pollution? The video, while very informative, is unfortunately not nearly compelling enough, given the gravity and scope of the issue.
Newsday, Long Island's major daily paper, has been covering this environmental crisis, but given the severity of it, and the continued public ignorance about it, needs to double down on its efforts. Water quality is the single most important issue facing Long Island. Yet too many Long Islanders remain unaware of what is causing the problem, and what we need to do to secure Long Island's future.
A major consortium called The Long Island Clean Water Partnership, consisting of The Nature Conservancy, The Group For The East End, The Pine Barrens Society, and The Citizens Campaign For The Environment, formed several years back, similarly, has its work cut out for itself. They have worked very hard to raise awareness among Long Islanders as to the enormous environmental challenge presented by nitrogen pollution, yet too few people know about the nitrogen problem and what kind of investments and changes in behaviors it would take to address it. There are a hundred or so smaller organizations that constitute Long Island's environmental community, and all been trying to get the word out about how we must face this water quality disaster head on, and make the investments necessary to preserve Long Island's future, yet so long as the vast majority of Long Islanders remain uninformed, we have not done our job.
Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone has named nitrogen "Public Enemy #1" and had proposed a referendum that would have leveed a $1.00 fee per 1000 gallons of water used. Currently, people in Suffolk County pay $1.67 per 1000 gallons, a rate far below Nassau County (up to twice that) and New York City (over $5.00), again, even as Suffolk is depleting its aquifer while simultaneously poisoning it.
That was to have produced an annual revenue stream of $75 mil, which would have helped to finance what again is about a $8 bil investment in waste water infrastructure, from sewering to onsite denitrification systems, to addressing the 200 or so small scale sewage treatment systems that dot Long Island for malls, schools, apartment complexes, restaurants, many of which are sorely out of compliance. That referendum never made it to the ballot for this November, unfortunately. It seems the county has had a history of raiding environmental funds to balance its budget, so that there just wasn't the trust that this new fund wouldn't be raided as well, even with the effort to safeguard against this in the drafting of the referendum.
Which is a shame. We just lost a year, and we can't afford that. Again, the public really needs to understand what's at stake and what the cost of doing nothing is. Right now, the need could not be more urgent; we must find a way to finance this waste water infrastructure rollout, and in a way that secures the funds solely for their intended use.
Suffolk County understands the degree of the crisis and the speed with which we must act; further, so does New York State. Governor Cuomo and The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, were presented with the science and the scale of the problem in February 2014 with The Long Island Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan and has since been working to develop a grand approach to Long Island's water and waste water challenges. The Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP) is now in the process of being drafted. It will serve as a roadmap to revitalizing Long Island's waters. The DEC has been holding meetings with the Long Island environmental community, local businesses, local, state and federal officials, and scientists so that we can begin to remediate what is in reality 500,000+ problems that add up to the big problem -- poor water quality.
In addition, New York State has allocated $388 million for sewerage along four major rivers flowing into The Great South Bay, an effort that would remove 15,000 cesspools and septic tanks, and decrease the nitrogen level of the bay by 15%, ideally improving water quality in the bay so that shell fishing would improve and with that, the local economy.
Much of this may be news to you, but that is in fact the point: There are thousands of people on Long Island working on how we can address this problem every day. There are many more thousands, people who see what is happening to our waters who are in mourning for that, and who are ready to take action. Yet if you asked people on Long Island where we got our water from what percent would know? Would they know why there are beach closures all over Long Island after a good rain ( It's all the low lying cesspools that need replacing ). If you asked people to pay a water use fee so that we could finance much needed infrastructure, how likely is it that they would support that if this was the first time they'd been made aware of the problem?
The chief challenge for Long Island environmentalists, then, is to reach enough of the general public so that when funding options come up again for this necessary infrastructure spend, there will be the political support necessary to pass the referendum. That happens when we understand, broadly speaking, what the plan is, why it needs to be done, and when there's -- crucially -- trust in the competence and integrity of those seeking to carry it out.
This is why video and social media are crucial to the overall effort to inform, persuade, and galvanize Long Islanders. In lecture halls and conference rooms across Long Island, people are meeting to discuss the water challenges we face. People from dozens of agencies and non-profits, all the major policymakers at every level of government are all convening to formulate the grand plan. Without an informed public that is ready to commit to the plan, however, we could end up with a 'study' that doesn't lead to action, but merely chronicles a continued decline. That is where digital media -- well scripted, produced, and well shared -- has an essential role to play.
By far the most efficient way to reach people today is via their mobile device and via video. 88% of Facebook's traffic is from mobile devices, and increasingly that traffic is video. By 2020, 75% of mobile traffic will be video according to Cisco. What could possibly be more efficient in creating public awareness then than a viral video? Facebook itself is betting that its future is in video. Inasmuch as that is true, the future of environmentalism, of engagement in local environmental issues, is also in video, and specifically in videos that move people.
People find video compelling because that is the medium for storytelling. Words may move people, a picture yet more so, but a video can introduce you to another mind, another world. If enough of us encounter, if only virtually, the nature we would seek to preserve, experiencing a place or person or creature through the power of video, we can build the social support necessary to fuel environmental movements, especially local ones. We all care about where we are from; being able to see video of our local environment -- a lake, stream, or bay in distress, a way of life threatened, moves people to action.
Recently, the Nature Conservancy of Long Island unveiled a series of 11 short videos and 3 animated clips, local vignettes addressing local concerns. All the videos addressed, generally, the issue of water quality on Long Island, but each had its own vantage point.
Here's the trailer:
The eleven videos they produced -- and Red Vault Productions did a great job -- present a variety of stories that are each compelling in their own way.
There's Jim's Solution, the story of an auto parts dealer in Freeport who 'went green,' as improbable as that sounds.
There's the achingly beautiful and inspiring story "We Are Oyster Farmers," which takes place in Montauk.
There's "Answers and Solutions," a paean to our fishing heritage and its preservation.
For those that know and love the jewel that is Shelter Island, there is Generations, which emphasizes the importance of land preservation, and of involving our children in nature.
On Display is the story of someone who grew up on the bay in Bellport, and who through his photography post Sandy became a major environmental advocate. Michael Busch's photography can be found at Great South Bay Images. You will see the bay and its wildlife with new eyes, which is the goal.
It's Imperative relays the plight of Mastic Beach, a low lying and densely populated community on the eastern side of The Great South Bay that was built on wetlands and which is now threatened by coastal erosion, sea rise, and lack of sewage infrastructure.
Something Lost harkens back to a time when the marshes were alive with turtles, frogs, and snakes, when the fish were abundant along The South Shore around Oakdale.
The Collapse of a Legacy brings us face to face with the tragedy, repeated in virtually every bay on Long Island, of the loss of shellfishing as a livelihood due to poor water quality.
A New Perspective captures the passion of paddle boarding, and how that sport makes one necessarily an environmentalist. Its about as close to the water as you can get.
On Georgica Pond introduces us to an otherwise idyllic community in Wainscott, in The Hamptons, where the pond is very much under threat from toxic algae blooms.
A Chef's Connection brings us to Greenport, on The North Fork. Wine country. A family restaurant sources local, organic foods and sells local sea salt for cooking. In the face of overdevelopment and the consequent degradation in water quality, will The North Fork remain a desired destination and will a way of life survive?
Overall, this series of videos is a powerful diverse assembly of voices that bring home to us the beauty of Long Island's waters, what was, what is, and what may yet still be if only we choose to protect and preserve them. In this regard, the show I host, Water Matters, adopts the same approach, offering the public a diverse set of issues and points of view on Long Island and its waters that both informs and moves people.
Video is not new to environmentalism, as someone old enough to remember Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, or The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau can attest to. Going back further, how much did the advent of photography have to do with the establishment of our national park system? We will only seek to protect and preserve what we see and will move us.
Now that video has become pervasive, now that everyone is carrying a camera and a video player in their pockets, now that professional video production itself is becoming much more affordable as the cameras and the editing tools improve, we have it within our means to create the level of awareness we need to preserve the places we love, to keep us engaged with the natural world.
To all environmentalists then -- get handy with a camera. Show people what you care about. People respond to beauty, and will seek to preserve and restore it.