A new strategy to tackle nitrogen pollution in Suffolk County is underway. "Reclaim our Water," the initiative involving sewer upgrades announced by Suffolk County Thursday, would be the first investment in clean water infrastructure in generations, officials said.
“The alarming increase of nitrogen pollution from septics and cesspools in Suffolk County’s surface and ground waters is leading toward an ecological collapse,” County Executive Steve Bellone said, in a press release.
The county is targeting three priority sub-regions for sewage upgrades: densely populated areas surrounding the Forge River, Connetquot River, and Carlls River.
Sewering these key areas, which contribute most to nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay, would remove 3 million pounds of nitrogen from these tributaries over the next 10 years, amounting to a 25 percent reduction, authorities said.
While funding to design the project, which would reduce nitrogen to the Forge River by almost 70 percent, was approved earlier this year, construction costs are estimated at more than $300 million. Suffolk County is pursuing state and federal funding for these infrastructure projects.
“The cost of sewering is too great to put the burden solely on the backs of Suffolk County residents,” Bellone said.
“Nitrogen pollution adversely affects our coastal resiliency, our environment, our economy, our land values, our tourism industry and our recreational use of our waters," he added. "We must take immediate and decisive action to remediate the decades of nitrogen pollution.”
The initiative has strong support from the business community, including the Long Island Association, scientists and other leaders.
“Nitrogen pollution of our bays has been decimating our coastal vegetation and it is time we took a stand,” said Dr. Chris Gobler of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the largest independent oceanographic institution in the United States, released a study in 2012 that demonstrated that nitrogen pollution is the leading driver to wetland, sea grass and salt-marsh loss.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2100 Commission Report, which included ways to improve the resilience and strength of the state’s infrastructure in the face of natural disasters and other emergencies, indicates that Long Island’s tidal wetlands play a critical role in protecting communities from storm damage.
Suffolk County Water Authority Chairman James F. Gaughran said the initiative would begin to curb the damage caused by nitrogen pollution.
The South Shore estuary has less than 10 percent of the coastal vegetation now than it did in 1930, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.
Officials say storm waves lose energy as they travel through vegetation, decreasing wave height and velocity by up to 80 percent. With no coastal vegetation to act as a buﬀer, storm waves strike coastlines at full force.
Coastal vegetation also prevents beach erosion by holding soil in place and counteracts flooding by storing water, approximately 1 million gallons for each acre of healthy marshland, officials noted.
“Seventy percent of the nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay comes from unsewered residential properties,” Bellone said. “Suffolk County has 360,000 unsewered homes, which is more than the entire state of New Jersey.”
Officials say sewering these key areas, which contribute most to nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay, will remove 3 million pounds of nitrogen from these tributaries over the next 10 years, amounting to a 25 percent reduction.