Long Island is experiencing a large crisis in the contamination levels of nitrogen in its groundwater, which affects its drinking and coastal water supply, Long Island Clean Water Partnership officials say.
The Suffolk County government has now proposed a Water Quality Protection fee, a surcharge of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used, which would generate nearly $75 million in annual revenue to reduce nitrogen pollution.
“The surcharge is needed to pay and gain additional funds to help us invest in our water quality infrastructure,” Vanessa Baird-Streeter, director of communications of the Suffolk County government, said.
In 2015, the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Stony Brook University found that the nitrogen contamination was coming from the septic systems, Jennifer Garvey, associate director of The Center for Clean Water Technology in Stony Brook, said.
“Seventy-five percent of Suffolk alone relies on these septic systems, that’s about 350,000, which is a huge number,” she added. “It’s greater than any other county in the country that we are aware of.”
These cesspools and septic tanks end up discharging nitrogen directly into the groundwater aquifers throughout Long Island, Richard Amper, executive director of the Pines Barren Society, an educational and advocacy organization focused on protecting drinking water and open spaces on Long Island, said.
Almost all of Long Island’s drinking water comes from these groundwater aquifers, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservancy (NYSDEC).
“It’s going to be necessary to replace these cesspools, and it’ll cost a lot of money,” Amper said. “But we can’t expect homeowners to afford it, so we need this water quality fee.”
“If we wait until it gets worse, the cost will only increase,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), a citizens group dedicated to addressing environmental concerns throughout New York and Connecticut, said. “The problem won’t be free, easy or quick to solve.”
After raising awareness over the nitrogen contamination this past year, the CCE currently supports the fee proposition and plans to educate Long Island legislators, civic leaders and ordinary citizens so that they will be more informed about the issue facing Long Island’s water, CCE officials said.
“It’s a small price to pay to insure clean water,” Esposito said.
“The people in Suffolk pay 97 percent less than those in the country, so an estimated $76 a year is not a significant increase,” Amper added.
Although the water is not immediately threatening for humans to drink, the marine ecosystem has a much lower tolerance and can be devastated by the the increasing levels of nitrogen in the water, Garvey explained.
Center for Clean Water Technologies Co-Director Harold Walker said that nitrogen was linked to the dwindling shellfish population on Long Island a few years ago, colorful algae blooms that kill fish and their nurseries and the loss of wetlands in the South Shore.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, the sense was that the damage was worse because of the loss of wetlands, which would have acted as a natural barrier against the storm,” Garvey added.
If the state approves the water quality fee, residents of Suffolk County would vote on a referendum this fall on whether or not to enact the fee.
Group for The East End, a Long Island conservancy group and member of the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, is planning to use members, advertisements and emails to raise awareness on the vote, Bob Deluca, the organization’s president said.
“If we don’t go out there, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Nothing’s going to change if we avoid this decision.”