Environment & Nature

Small fry fish in the water beside the Poquott dock. Coastal acidification harms not only shellfish but also can affect the development and behavior of young fish. Photo by Maria Hoffman

A local task force recently took part in a vital water testing project and chose the Village of Poquott to accomplish its task.

George Hoffman lowering the Sonde sensor to collect water depth, temperature and salinity readings before taking water samples for alkalinity. Photo by Maria Hoffman

George Hoffman, co-founder of Setauket Harbor Task Force, said the organization participated in Shell Day Aug. 22 when the group tested water from the Village of Poquott’s new dock. Shell Day is a six-state water monitoring event coordinated by Northeast Coastal Acidification Network. NECAN, which serves as an interface between research and industry interests, enlisted 50 water quality groups run by citizen scientists to test for levels of ocean acidification along the harbors and bays from Maine to the Long Island Sound.

Covering more than 600 miles of the U.S. Northeast coast, the testing will give scientists a broader picture of the extent of acidification that comes into the ocean from harbors and bays.

“[Acidification] is having impacts on shellfish and baby fish,” Hoffman said. “The problem with a higher acid content of the water is that it starts to impact the shell of the baby shellfish as they are emerging. It weakens the shells and makes them more susceptible to die-offs, and they don’t survive. It’s just impacts the whole food chain.”

Hoffman said the task force tests water conditions in the Sound’s bays and harbors twice a year and was thrilled to participate in Shell Day. The Village of Poquott was the ideal spot for the testing, he said, due to its new dock in the middle of Port Jefferson Harbor, and the task force appreciated village officials allowing them to use the location.

Testing was done during three phases of the tide — low, mid and high — which took place at 11:18 a.m., 2:18 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Hoffman said two water samples were taken from every phase of the tide and then put on ice. The samples were then sent by ferry to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they will be analyzed at the University of Connecticut’s laboratory for alkalinity and salinity.

Poquott Mayor Dee Parrish said in an email the village was pleased that the dock, which was officially opened in June, was chosen. While the goal was to provide a place for residents to use for fishing, photography, summer lounging and social interactions, the testing on the dock was a first.

Mark Smith and George Hoffman with equipment used for water testing. Photo by Maria Hoffman

“Being able to assist the Setauket Harbor Task Force in obtaining the water samples that will provide actionable information for watershed management, strategic habitat protection and restoration is a really fabulous end of season way to celebrate our first year with this wonderful new community asset,” Parrish said.

Laurie Vetere, president of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said in a statement that the group is eager to participate in every study that can determine the health of Port Jefferson and Setauket harbors

“We hope that our efforts on Shell Day 2019 will drive the local and regional governments to step up their efforts to improve the ability of our local waters to provide optimal habitats for our native and dwindling marine life,” Vetere said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the state’s Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, applauded the group’s efforts in a statement. Englebright is responsible for drafting legislation to establish Stony Brook University’s Ocean Acidification Task Force.

“The process of ocean acidification is invisible, and we need to have regional scientific datasets to bring the magnitude of this enormous threat to marine life into plain site and help us develop strategies to address its impacts,” Englebright said. “Time and again, we see that ordinary citizens are ready and willing to help with critical scientific data collection. Shell Day 2019 is a powerful and inspiring example of how we can bring citizen scientists together with leading government agencies to make a real difference.”

Michael Schwarting presents the study's findings to village officials. Photo by Kyle Barr

If Port Jefferson experiences another “100 year flood” sooner than a century, then at least it knows where the water is coming from.

Professionals from Port Jefferson-based Campani and Schwarting Architects attended the Aug. 19 village meeting showing map after map of where the problem areas for Port Jeff flooding are, and offered suggestions, some big and some small, of how to combat the issue of flooding.

Michael Schwarting said many of the issues are due to an excess of hardscape, both building roofs and roads, and a significant lack of permeable spaces, especially in areas where the depth of the water table is less than 11 feet below ground. Forty percent of village property is non-water-permeable.

“There’s a fair density of buildings that contribute to the groundwater conditions,” he said. “That contributes in bringing water from the watershed to the lowest point.”

In the three-square-mile village, with a population of just over 8,000, the vast majority of land sits within the Port Jefferson watershed area.

The village tapped the PJ-based architectural firm back in February to construct a water management and storm surge study. While the study still needs to be finalized, with map after map, the architect discussed numerous issues contributing to flooding. One such map described how there were numerous roads that sloped down toward Port Jefferson Harbor. Some roads house catch basins to collect the water before it reaches trouble points, some streets have too few or no catch basins while others had more than is likely necessary.

Last September, Port Jefferson was bowled over with water, with nearly 4 inches of rain collected in a short span of time. Buildings like the Port Jefferson firehouse and the venerable Theatre Three were drowned in 3 to 4 feet of water, causing thousands of dollars in damages in the case of the theater.

The architect said what is likely a major cause of this is due to piping systems that draw a lot of water to the end of Barnum Avenue and the driveway to the Port Jefferson high school. Schwarting added there are stories of when that pipe was being built, children used to walk to school along it, meaning the system sits close to the surface.

“All of these pipes, some coming from North Country Road to Main Street with a lot of catch basins are contributing to this one point at Barnum and high school,” he said.

Mayor Margot Garant said they have received a report from Bohemia-based engineering firm P.W. Grosser Consulting about the pipe running from that culvert to the outfall pipe behind village hall. That report said there was sediment buildup at a low point in the pipe, also showing the pipe had “a pinch and a jog” that leads down toward the harbor. 

In June, Port Jefferson Village presented its Waterfront Revitalization Plan to the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, describing its intention to perform immediately needed maintenance of the storm drainage system and provide emergency equipment to deploy in a rain event to protect properties in the village in catastrophic flooding. 

At its July 15 meeting, the village voted unanimously to apply for grant funds not to exceed $1 million from the state Division of Planning’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, Empire State Development and any other applicable state agencies. 

The architects point out numerous small projects that can be done around the village to aid in flood mitigation, mostly in increasing permeable surfaces around the village. This would include rain gardens and bioswales, a landscape element designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water, permeable paving systems, tree trenches and bioretention planters, acting as plant bed medians with grooves cut in the curb allowing water to drain in and flow into local outlets.

Though the architectural firm also endorsed several major projects, such as “daylighting” Mill Creek and the firm’s own plan proposal, given to the village in 2013, to completely remake the Brookhaven Town parking lot and boat ramp, adding significantly more greenery and passive recreational space in what is now hardscape. 

A male box turtle, above, approximately 30 years old, was discovered in Patriots Hollow State Forest. Photo from Three Village Community Trust

Scientists have discovered natural wonders in a Setauket forest.

Researcher Luke Gervase stands between a couple of the large trees found in Patriots Hollow State Forest. Photo from Three Village Community Trust

Researchers from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry took to the 43-acre woods of Patriots Hollow State Forest, along Route 25A, across from Stop & Shop, to collect information on the forest composition and structure Aug. 8 and 9. The researchers hoped to develop management recommendations that would enhance the forest for biodiversity conservation and environmental education. The survey was funded by a grant from Avalon Park & Preserve, according to a press release from Three Village Community Trust.

In 2018, the community trust set up a steering committee led by Setauket resident and former teacher Leonard Carolan to clean up the woods and add a trail for people to walk through the forest, something which is currently difficult with downed trees and invasive plants, including Norway maple, Japanese aralia, Oriental bittersweet, black locust and Japanese stiltgrass.

After Carolan approached the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) to seek help in cleaning up the forest, the community trust signed a stewardship agreement with the DEC. Carolan said the initial reports are encouraging.

“It looks like we’ll be able to restore it to an original native forest,” Carolan said.

He added that, in the future, there would be a loop trail near Route 25A and another one near the Main Street section, but before they are created some cleanup needs to be done and funds raised, which could take years.

Don Leopold, distinguished teaching professor from SUNY-ESF’s Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, along with research assistant Samuel Quinn, was among the researchers.

Leopold said it was his first visit to the forest, and he was impressed with the findings. Despite invasive plants and past agriculture that didn’t leave many remnant trees, he said they discovered many beautiful oak and hickory trees, adding that he had seen black oak and sassafras all over the Eastern United States, and amongst the largest he has seen were in Patriots Hollow.

“We went by some really great trees,” he said. “Ideally the trails will swing by those. They can’t miss these. There are really impressive specimens of some black oaks and some hickories, and we really enjoyed seeing them.”

Researcher Luke Gervase stands by a sassafras tree found in Patriots Hollow State Forest. Photo from Three Village Community Trust

The researcher said they also found spicebush in the forest.

“Spicebush is one of our most important native shrubs,” Leopold said. “It’s so important for wildlife coming for food. It’s a source of food for the spicebush swallowtail [butterfly].”

Leopold and Quinn discussed management of invasive plants in the forest with Bill Jacobs, Luke Gervase and Caroline Schnabl of Long Island Invasive Species Management Area who joined in the survey. Leopold said that they are optimistic that the invasives could be eliminated, which is vital for the growth of new trees.

Leopold added that a male box turtle, approximately 30 years old, was found in the wooded area. He said the species can live to be more than 100 years old, and the one they saw in Patriots Hollow reminded him a pumpkin with legs, as it was especially big and colorful.

The researcher said they encountered tick bombs while in the forest, with 100 to 200 small tick larvae starting to disperse at one time. He said when the lone star ticks are older their bites can cause problems as they can carry a disease that makes a person allergic to red meat.

“Until there are trails, and until some of these issues are addressed, it would be good to not have a bunch of folks running through here because the tick infestation can be a public health hazard,” he said.

Brian Leydet of SUNY-ESF will analyze ticks collected during the survey so recommendations can be made to the community trust and DEC about ways to reduce human-to-tick contact.

The 3VCT’s steering committee will look to include the community in the planning process and will work with the trust itself to seek grants and contributions. The initial implementation of the restoration and management plan will be funded by a grant of $500,000 secured by state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in 2018, according to a press release from the trust.

FIERY SKY

Jerry Allen of Middle Island took this picture at Port Jefferson Harbor in June on his iPhone. He writes, ‘As has so often been the case this summer, the skies suddenly darkened with thunder and lightning in the distance. The storm passed over, however leaving in it’s wake blazing skies, twinkling lights on a fishing boat heading back and an unexpected brilliant sunset for all to enjoy.’

Rebecca Kassay along with the crew from Aureate Visuals and local hired help in front of their 1991 Winnebago. Photo from Kassay

Baltimore, Maryland. So much has been said about the city, criticism that came from way beyond the city itself. But Rebecca Kassay, the co-owner of the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson, saw something incredible from the people living there. There was a community in the neighborhood of Cherry Hill growing fresh fruit and vegetables, teaching others to farm, giving access to fresh food for people who live several miles from the nearest supermarket. The program, called the Black Yield Institute, was making a difference in their community, and the Port Jeff resident said she knew it needed to be seen by the world.

Rebecca Kassay fist bumps a volunteer at Cherry Hill, Baltimore’s Black Yield Institute. Photo from Kassay

“What they’re doing there is just so incredible as far as combining uplifting the community — integrating culture and fun,” said Kassay. “It was amazing to experience it with my own eyes and be there while this incredible group said, ‘we’re going to create this garden, how can we help people become more aware of health issues and social issues?’”

The inn owner is out on the road, touring in a renovated 1991 Winnebago with her husband, Andrew, and their dog. Filming with a Setauket-based crew, she is trying to spread the news of just how many nonprofits and volunteer works are out there and how much good they do for their respective communities.

“What I really love is connecting people, not just with a cause they love to help, but more importantly, connecting them with the power within themselves,” she said.

The show, titled “Be the Change with Rebecca,” is finishing filming throughout the fall before transitioning to full post-production during the winter. The show expects to come out sometime in spring 2020 on Amazon Prime video.

Kassay, 30, who was born in St. James and later moved to Port Jefferson to open the Fox and Owl Inn with her husband, said the show is inspired by modern serialized documentaries, and takes a form much like a show she loved as a child, “Dirty Jobs,” hosted by Mike Rowe. In much the same way to that Discovery Channel hit, which had the host performing a variety of blue-collar jobs on screen along with the regular workers, Rebecca gets down and dirty with the volunteers, whether it’s driving in nails while building houses or digging in the dirt in a community garden.

“We’re collecting the stories of how they do the work and how they decided to come out,” she said. “Such as, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer at a community garden, here’s what it looks like when you volunteer to restore an oyster reef.”

By the end of their trip, they will have traveled as far east as Baiting Hollow on Long Island, as far south as Washington D.C. and as far west as Detroit, Michigan.

Kassay had the idea for this project nearly two years ago, working off her own background as a youth volunteer project manager at Avalon Park and Preserve. She reached out through local Facebook groups for a crew interested in taking on the project, and the Setauket-based Aureate Visuals production team answered the call.

The three filmmakers, Steve Glassner, Larry Bernardo and Marvin Tejada, have donated their time on a pro bono basis to help make the project possible. All three have worked on projects before, such as Mentally Apart, a feature film set to premier by the end of the year. All three met while in school at Five Towns College.

“It’s been a very, very fun experience, especially all the people we meet and the locals who worked on the crew with us,” said Glassner. “It’s been a real learning experience. We’re meeting people from all walks of life, and it’s amazing and incredible what they’re doing in their own communities.”

The project has taken in this spirit of volunteerism with the crew. The folks at Aureate Visuals, in keeping with the spirit of the show, have volunteered their time to the project. Several of the crew work day jobs, and so they are constantly travelling back and forth from Long Island to where the next shoot is taking place.

Rebecca Kassay, middle, works with a group of volunteers at an oyster farm. Photo from Kassay

Glassner added production has been smooth, and each shoot “felt like we were a family — no egos — it’s one giant collaboration.”

For the most part, the project is self-funded, though they have received significant pledges from the Port Jefferson Rotary Club and have financed $1,654 so far from backers on Indiegogo. Everything else is coming from the owners of the Fox and Owl Inn. Their minimum budget, according to their Indiegogo page, includes $3,000 for travel and lodging, $3,000 for local crew wages, $1,500 for per diem food, $500 for miscellaneous expenses and $800 in Indiegogo related fees.

As the family goes around in the renovated Winnebago, retrofitted with whitewashed cabinets and flooring to make it feel like home, she has become surer this was the right way to get the message across.

“Working with these young people when you connect them with a power within themselves, they just light up,” Kassay said. “The light in their eyes is something the greatest gift you can give someone, connecting them with that.”

The project still has investor space open, and the Indiegogo ends on Sunday, Aug. 18. People can visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/be-the-change-with-rebecca#/to donate.

Elected officials were on hand for a ribbon-cutting at Old Field Farm. The event marked the official opening of a nearly half-mile trail that can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Elected officials have made it easier for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy a county property in East Setauket.

At a press conference Aug. 12, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), NYS Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), employees from the county’s parks department and residents were on hand for a ribbon-cutting at Old  Field Farm. The event marked the official opening of a nearly half-mile trail that can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking.

Bellone credited Hahn’s persistence for making the trail happen. The legislator secured $100,000 from the county’s 2018 Capital Budget and Program to fund the path. The trail starts at a pedestrian entrance on West Meadow Road on the eastern side of the farm, runs around the perimeter of the farm and ends on Trustees Road right before visitors enter the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach pathway.

“What a wonderful gem this park is for our community and for the county, and what an incredible addition this is for people,” Bellone said. “You think, well is a path that significant, and the answer is yes. It literally changes the whole environment for people.”

Hahn said she knows that trails such as the Old Field Farm are important to the community, because it allows people to be physically active, while enjoying the outdoors without sharing the road with vehicles. 

The nearly half-mile trail can be used for walking, running, hiking and biking. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“I’m a runner, and I run often on West Meadow Road here,” she said. “There are some blind curves. And, this will also function to get people — walkers, runners, bikers — off the dangerous road and on to our public space. Having people have access to these public places is so important for us as elected officials to make sure that these spaces that we invest in — that we spend money to maintain — that people use them and appreciate them, and this is a way that many more people can take advantage.”

Hahn thanked community leaders for their support, including county parks department employees, Herb Mones of the Three Village Civic Association’s land use committee, Larry Swanson from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Englebright, who secured the land for Suffolk in 1985 when he was a county legislator. She also thanked Sally Lynch, president of Old Field Farm, Ltd., who she called an advocate and steward of the property. Hahn said the nonprofit organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through the years. The funds, in conjunction with county grants, have helped to restore and maintain the historic structures on the property. The farm is also home to horse shows, and the trail will be closed during those shows to avoid spooking the horses.

Old Field Farm consists of 13 acres that adjoin the 88 acres of protected wetlands and overlooks the Long Island Sound and West Meadow Creek. Long Island philanthropist Ward Melville built Old Field Farm in 1931, and it was initially called North Shore Horse Show Grounds. Melville commissioned architect Richard Haviland Smythe to create the equestrian facility, which includes a main barn and courtyard, freestanding stables and a wooden grandstand.

“This property is exquisite, spectacular as you can see,” Hahn said.

Englebright said the property could have been sold to a developer to build a waterfront housing development in 1985. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, who owned it at the time, decided to sell it to the county. The land acquisition was an important one, he said, because it is located right next to West Meadow Beach. The assemblyman described the area as a mosaic of public lands forming a protective encirclement around West Meadow Creek. He called the addition of the trail extraordinary.

“With the access now of this trail, when you add this trail to Trustees Road, you have more than a mile of waterfront-exclusive, non-motorized access,” he said.

In the past, Hahn has spearheaded initiatives for a parking lot and walking path at Forsythe Meadow Woods County Park in Stony Brook and a parking lot at McAllister County Park in Belle Terre.

 

Town of Huntington Department of Maritime Services bay constables clean up the harbor, remove derelict boats and hardware from Huntington waterways on July 24, 2019. Photo from the Town of Huntington

The Town of Huntington Harbormaster’s Office will start mooring permit enforcement on Friday, August 16. Boaters are urged to submit a mooring permit application by August 15. Unpermitted boats will be fined $250 starting August 16.

The Huntington Town Board approved a major boating safety and water quality protection measure at the June 18 meeting to help prevent irresponsible boat ownership and irresponsible boating, after the town spent $50,000 to remove derelict and abandoned boats in 2018.

The new system establishes a $40 per season resident permit fee, with all funds deposited into the Board of Trustees account.  Non-residents already paid $200 per season for the same permit.

The move aims to place liability for removing, storing and disposing of unseaworthy and wrecked vessels on the owner or person responsible for the vessel.  The funds will also be used for pollution mitigation and remediation of other navigational safety hazards.

 Revenue from the permit fee will help the harbormaster’s office build a database to help the town identify owners of boats abandoned in Huntington’s waterways and hold violators responsible for creating hazardous boating safety conditions. 

The approved measure also established and increased required insurance limits for vessel wreck removal and pollution mitigation.

The new regulations also lowered the cost, from $200 to $40, for transient commercial mooring permits for commercial entities leasing or owning land in Huntington, to help boost the town’s maritime economy.

 The mooring permit application can be found on the town website at: http://www.huntingtonny.gov/mooring-permits. 

Mooring permit applications may be submitted, with the proper paperwork and payment by check (or by credit card in the office), in person or by mail, to: Huntington Board of Trustees, Harbormaster’s Office, 53 North New York Avenue, Halesite, NY 11743. Documents may also be faxed to 631-351-3373 or emailed to tshannon@huntingtonny.gov.

 The Harbormaster’s Office is open Monday through Friday 8:30 AM-4:30 PM. For application assistance, call 631-351-3255 or email Trudy Shannon at tshannon@huntingtonny.gov.

The town is allowing commercial baymen who operate in Huntington’s waterways to have their mooring permit included with the issuance or renewal of their commercial license.

compiled by Donna Deedy

New York State's native ladybug population, coccinella novemnotata, in major decline.

By Donna Deedy

Who doesn’t love a ladybug? Everyone seems to hold at least a certain amount of affection for the insect. So, people might find the news somewhat heartbreaking: Certain species of the
polka-dotted bug are threatened and nearly extinct in the Northeastern United States.

In 1985, the ladybug coccinella novemnotata was considered a very common insect. Its range that year is shown in the gray area of the map. The Lost Ladybug Project said that sightings east of the Mississippi have become extremely rare, as indicated by the black dots on the map. Image from The Lost Ladybug Project website.

Scientists say they don’t know precisely how or why the ladybug population has declined so rapidly in recent decades or what impact it will ultimately have on the ecosystem, but they’re asking the public to assist with their efforts to both search for the bug to document the population and to help revive the species by purchasing insects to set free.

“It’s a now or never,” said Leslie Ladd Allee, an entomologist from The Lost Ladybug Project, an affiliate of Cornell University. “If citizens act as scientists, they can help.”

If you see a ladybug, people are asked to simply upload a photo of it to The Lost Ladybug Project’s website or its app, called LLP. If you don’t see any on your own land, the project organizers consider that “zero” still important to report. Searching can be done from May to October, with June, July and August being the best time frame. 

Over the last eight years, the project has gathered more than 40,000 pictures of different species of the ladybug from every state in the U.S. and parts of Canada and Mexico. The data is providing researchers with a more complete understanding of what’s going on. 

What they’re seeing is a rise in foreign species of the insect, such as the Asian ladybug, while some native species were feared to be eliminated, according to Dan Gilrein, an entomologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

“The New York state insect is the nine-spotted lady beetle — some people call these ladybugs which is fine, too — that was once common in the state, but no longer,” he said.

Researchers initially learned that the top three most common species of ladybugs, the nine-spotted, two-spotted and transverse, were no longer found on Long Island, or New York state or New England. 

Then in 2011, during a Lost Ladybug event sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, volunteer participant Peter Priolo found a nine-spotted ladybug living happily on a sunflower. 

Kathy Kennedy, senior outreach manager for Peconic Land Trust, said that she’s been sponsoring a search as a citizen science activity every summer since then to connect people with nature and raise awareness about the decline in native species. 

A nine-spotted lady bug found in 2011 at Quail Hill Organic Farms in Amagansett, New York. The population of native ladybugs found at Quail Hill have been the source for The Lost Ladybug Project’s breeding program to repopulate coccinella novemnotata, a native ladybug species.

“The trust runs Quail Hill Farm organically, which we think helps to actively steward the home population of the nine-spotted variety of ladybugs,” Kennedy said.

Scientists with the ladybug project since 2011 have been raising offspring from the Amagansett colony in a lab in Ithaca. For the last few years, they’ve been selling the bugs to people in the Northeast. They hope to revive the species the same way wolf populations were reestablished in Yellowstone National Park. So far, 60 people have released ladybugs on Long Island through the program. There have been 16 locations on Long Island’s North Shore.

Families and youth groups can purchase ladybug restoration kits for $50 plus shipping from The Lost Ladybug Project. Allee said that the project loses money on each transaction but wants to keep the price affordable to encourage participation. 

The Lost Ladybug Project is supported by donations, sales and grants from the National Science Foundation. Allee said the project is underfunded, but the importance of the mission keeps the people involved motivated to continue.

“There are many kinds or species of lady beetles,” Gilrein said. “Some kinds of lady beetles are black with red spots, some have other colors like orange or yellow.” 

Some feed on aphids, some specialize on pests like mites, mealybugs or scale insects, he said. 

Many are considered beneficial, including the invasive Asian ladybug.

“Yes, they also consume aphids and other crop and garden pests,” Allee said. “Each species fills a different niche with somewhat different life cycle timing and diets.”

While some species of the insect are no longer common, the abundance of certain species, such as the seven-spotted lady beetle and the Asian ladybug concerns Allee. 

“We need to preserve the biodiversity of ladybug species,” she said. “The decline of the three lost ladybugs threatens the biodiversity of ladybugs and the stability of food webs.”

A seven-spotted lady bug eats aphids from the underside of an apple leaf. Photo from Laurie McBride

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

Suffolk County will look to address the ongoing issue of nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater with an ambitious plan that will look to transition away from the reliance on cesspools and septic systems. 

The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which would invest $4 billion to combat nitrogen pollution, would last more than 50 years and sets a blueprint for the county to replace hundreds of thousands of old and inadequate septic systems. 

A map detailing the phases of the proposed project. Images from Suffolk County. Click for full view.

The plan sets a goal for the county to eliminate 253,000 cesspools and septic systems by replacing them with new nitrogen reducing systems or by connecting them to existing sewers. According to Suffolk health officials, approximately 74 percent of the county remains unsewered, so individual residences and businesses rely on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems. Studies show that about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays comes from approximately 360,000 cesspools and septic systems.

“Scientists have warned that continued reliance on primitive wastewater disposal systems is a mounting threat to both our environment and our economy,” said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk health commissioner. “Now, for the first time, there is a long-term plan to diminish nitrogen pollution and put Suffolk County on a path to cleaner, healthier water resources.”

The SWP has highlighted more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County and established goals and recommendations for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area. If those goals are met, health officials said it will begin to reverse the decline in water quality within 10 years and bring it back to a more pristine condition.

To get that process started, officials said the county will use more than $500 million in already allocated grant sources toward the replacement of 10,000 cesspools and septic systems and expand connections to sewer systems over the next four years as part of the first phase of the plan. 

“This plan represents the first meaningful strategy to address legacy septic nitrogen pollution since countywide sewering objectives were abandoned some four decades ago,” Walter Dawydiak, director of Environmental Quality for Suffolk County, said. “In those four decades, we learned a great deal about how toxic excess nitrogen is to the ecosystem. However, we consistently failed to solve the single largest environmental health problems of our generation. Finally, we have a response plan that will restore our ecosystems and protect our drinking water.”

In the second phase of the plan, which would begin 2024, the county would look to eliminate more than 177,000 cesspools and septic systems near shorelines and high priority areas. It also recommends a requirement that cesspools and septic systems be replaced with new technology when properties change hands, or when those cesspools and septic systems fail. Officials estimate that the requirement could increase the number of cesspools eliminated from 1,000 to more than 5,000 per year. 

The third phase of the SWP will tackle all other priority areas during a 15-year period. The fourth and final phase would address the remaining areas of the county beginning in 2068.

Currently, county grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify and wish to replace their cesspool. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000. As of July 1, Suffolk County residents who voluntarily decide to replace their cesspools will need to replace them with a system consisting of a septic tank and leaching pool at a minimum, according to previous reporting by TBR News Media. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services.

The SWP will undergo a detailed review by the county’s Council on Environmental Quality and will include an environmental impact statement which is expected sometime in mid-August, according to officials. From there, a 30-day comment period will begin, with two public hearings being scheduled.