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Source: Long Island Business News

Long Island on the verge of a water crisis


Posted: June 27, 2012
Originally Published: June 27, 2012

Long Island is in some hot water.

If not addressed properly, the lack of protection and degradation of the area’s drinking water –a basic, societal need – threatens Long Island’s quality of life.

One of 13 areas in the nation dedicated a “sole source aquifer” – meaning 100 percent of our drinking water comes from underground – Long Island is celebrated for its miles of beaches and bays. But beauty aside, they are integral to the region’s economic health.

Long Islanders, however, don’t understand their drinking water and surface water are directly connected, according to Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“As we degrade the quality of our ground water, we are also degrading the water quality in our bays,” she said.

“Everything we do to the ground impacts the water underneath it,” Esposito added, including the use of pesticides, cesspools, dumping pharmaceutical drugs and household hazardous waste products. “This is not a sustainable process for Long Island.”

Esposito’s concerns are not without warrant.
According to a draft of the Suffolk County Department of Health’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan released last year, there’s been a significant increase in nitrogen levels in Long Island’s ground water since the 1980s.

During that same period, the Island has experienced outbreaks of harmful algal blooms, specifically “brown tides” and fish-killing “red tides,” most notably in Suffolk County, according to Christopher Gobler, director of the Stony Brook-Southampton Coastal and Estuarine Research Program.

In 1980, two of three hard clams eaten east of the Mississippi River came from the Great South Bay, Gobler said. Since then, landings of hard clams and bay scallops have declined 99 percent, due in large part to brown tides, which are toxic to those shellfish. In other cases, red tide events can create toxins harmful to humans, Gobler cautioned.

In 2008, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation declared the entire South Shore Estuary Reserve system on Long Island an “impaired water body” because of algal blooms and nitrogen-loading. The primary source of nitrogen to this water body is wastewater from septic tanks and cesspools delivered via groundwater flow, Gobler said.

A direct factor in the level of contamination in Long Island’s drinking water is the increase in population, Esposito said. “As land use activity increases, obviously there are more cesspool tanks and more ground water pollution.”

For Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, Long Island’s overdevelopment is at the heart of the issue. “We need government to come forward with reforms and mandate relief so elected officials and residents are not put in this moral quandary,” said Bonner, referring to pressure to provide tax relief, which leads to overdevelopment and, in turn, storm water issues from residents who don’t have proper infrastructure in place to capture rain water.

Additionally, Bonner said, there is a fear of sewage treatment plants among many Long Island residents, particularly in Brookhaven.

Dealing with waste disposal is not a problem unique to Long Island; not having a centralized sewage treatment plant is, however, Gobler said. Hundreds of thousands of cesspools buried in yards across Long Island enable bathroom, shower and washing machine waste to drift into the ground water.

But New York State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, chairman of the environmental conservation committee, said people should not be unduly alarmed or concerned enough to turn on their faucets. There are several bills in the Legislature addressing part of the problem, such as limiting the nitrogen content in groundwater, he said, adding Long Island’s three main water concerns are pesticides, overdevelopment and the lack of sewers.

Sweeney concedes, however, that solving this issue will be “a long haul.”

Last month, several local environmental groups did just that. The Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Group for the East End, The Nature Conservancy, and Citizens Campaign for the Environment hosted a “Water Worries” conference to begin the process of finding workable solutions to the region’s water issues.

Esposito said she’d like to see an independent aquifer protection agency created to oversee and implement a management plan for our ground water.
Sweeney said the idea of a “super authority” controlling all of Long Island’s water issues, at an additional fee, has been suggested.

“I don’t think that flies,” Sweeney said. “I don’t know that people will want to give up local control or pay tax on water.”

One could argue the state DEC would be a logical entity to assume responsibility and accountability for Long Island’s water issues, Sweeney said, but questioned whether it would have the necessary resources after being hit hard by budget cuts.

“I’ve spoken with the commissioner and am hopeful he might partner with others in developing a solution,” Sweeney said.

Like other areas of the state rich in water resources due to lakes, streams and rivers, Long Island is fortunate to have water resources. The fact that it’s all underground, however, means when something goes wrong, we could have a big problem, Sweeney said.
“It’s a wonderful resource, but if people don’t act to protect it, we could potentially go from one extreme to another.”