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Nitrogen

Port Jefferson Harbor. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Harbor is currently undergoing an alarming phenomenon that an expert called “uncharted territory” locally.

The harbor is currently experiencing a rust tide, or an algal bloom, caused by a single-celled phytoplankton. Rust tides don’t pose any harm to humans but can be lethal to marine life.

Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said rust tides are spurred by hot air, water temperatures and excessive nutrients in the water, especially nitrogen. The Gobler Laboratory at SBU, named for the chairman, is monitoring the situation, performing research into its specific causes, and is looking for solutions to reduce nitrogen loading and thus the intensity of events like these, according to Gobler. He said he has been studying the phenomenon on the East End of Long Island for about 12 years, but this is only the second time it has occurred in Port Jefferson Harbor.

“We never had these blooms even on the East End before 2004,” Gobler said. “Now, they occur pretty much every year since 2004 or so.”

Blooming rust tides typically start in late August and last into mid-September.  However, as water and global temperatures continue to rise, Gobler said there are a lot of unknowns. He said this is one of the hottest summers he has ever witnessed regarding the temperature of the Long Island Sound, adding that temperatures in the local body of water have increased at a rate significantly faster than global averages.

“The big issue is temperature, so these blooms tend to track very well with warmer temperatures,” Gobler said.

George Hoffman, a co-founder of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group which monitors and advocates for the health of the harbor, said his organization saw some early evidence of a rust tide in Little Bay while conducting biweekly water testing Aug. 24. Little Bay is located within Setauket Harbor, and within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor complex. Hoffman said the task force’s readings suggested salinity levels and water temperature were within the parameters needed for the growth of a rust tide.

Rust tide is caused by cochlodinium polykrikoides, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The single-cell phytoplankton may harm fish and shellfish because it produces a hydrogen peroxide-like compound that can damage their gill tissue. Fish can avoid these dangerous blooms by simply swimming away. Fish and shellfish harvested in areas experiencing rust tides are still safe for human consumption.

Gobler said the installation of septic systems capable of removing more nitrogen in homes, especially that fall within watershed areas, would go a long way toward reducing hazardous algal blooms. Suffolk County has taken steps in recent months to increase grant money available to homeowners interested in installing septic systems with up-to-date technology capable of reducing the amount of nitrogen discharged into local waters. In addition, members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

Bellone speaks during a town hall at Port Jefferson Village Center. Photo by Kevin Redding

For a few hundred dollars annually, Suffolk County residents now have the option to take a step to improve the quality of Long Island waters.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) urged homeowners at a town hall meeting at Port Jefferson Village Center April 27 to get on board with a new grant and loan program that will help make the installation of state-of-the-art, nitrogen-reducing septic systems more affordable.

Bellone said the new systems, which would replace the 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, are the next step in a years-long initiative to reclaim Long Island’s water.

Brookhaven Town amends nitrogen protection zone law

By Alex Petroski

In June 2016, the Brookhaven Town board voted unanimously to approve a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) that established nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems, which took effect in January.

At a board meeting last week, an amendment was passed that will allow the board to adjust the former law, which allows for 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of water discharged from new septic systems or cesspools. This will come following the release of new technology that will make lowering the amount of nitrogen possible. It is uncertain what the new level may be, but once the town knows what it is, the board will be able to lower the limit immediately with the new amendment. Without the amendment, the limit would have to have waited to be put into effect Dec. 1.

“This law says we’ll meet the standard, but the minute there’s a lower standard, we will go with the lowest possible standard,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said during a public hearing on the amendment April 27.

Mary Anne Johnston of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Association commended the town’s actions during the hearing.

When the law was initially passed in 2016, Romaine spoke about the importance of limiting nitrogen in Long Island’s waters.

“We’ve all watched our waters degrade over the last 50 years,” Romaine said after the vote at a town board meeting held on June 9, 2016. “We all know part of the problem is nitrogen…the solutions to this problem are neither easy nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option; we must act now. Our future depends on us addressing this problem.”

“Water quality is everything to us here — it’s our quality of life, our heritage, our economy, tourism economy, our recreation and what we drink,” Bellone told a roomful of residents in Port Jefferson. “We need to retrofit those homes to protect our environment and reverse decades of water quality decline. We will lose another generation here if this is not done right and we’re very focused on making sure we do this right.”

Under the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, Bellone and Deputy County Executive Peter Scully told attendees individual homeowners can apply for grants administered by the county’s department of health services, which will approve permits, perform inspections and supervise system installations. Loans, administered by the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Long Island, offer homeowners low-cost financing for up to $10,000.

To cover the $17, 850 total cost of installation, eligible homeowners would be given an $11,000 grant — $10,000 for the installation of the individual alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems and $1,000 for a pressurized shallow drain field. Homeowners would pay the balance with a 15-year, fixed 3 percent loan.

The program primarily targets single-family, owner-occupied residences served by a septic system or cesspool. It excludes employees of the county, including elected officials or officeholders.

Charlie McAteer, a retired Port Jefferson Station resident and a member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, said his home’s septic system is among the 360,000 that are a few decades old now. He said he and his wife showed up to the town hall meeting to gain more information on the grant program.

“We want to investigate it a bit more — see if it’s viable and economically feasible,” McAteer said. “We just have to do some numbers-crunching and see if it makes sense in our particular parcel and then see if we would qualify.”

Ed Bram, from Port Jefferson, expressed concerns the county isn’t reaching out to the right group of people, as many in the room were already environmentally aware.

“We all think it’s a wonderful idea…so it’s sort of like preaching to the choir,” Bram said. “The general public out there has a different nature of thinking. I think the county is trying their best at doing something for the environment but going about it the wrong way.”

It’s a legitimate concern, Scully responded.

“There’s an education piece to this that people need to come to grips with,” Scully said. “It’s important for people to speak up.”

The County Executive hopes the project can get underway July 1, with 400 homeowners to be selected to receive funding in the first two years of the program.

Homeowners can contact septicdemo@suffolkcountyny.gov. for more information.

Discharging homes’ wastewater into sewer systems could keep harmful substances out of our water supply. File photo

By Colm Ashe

The message from Stony Brook University’s center for clean water technology was clear — it’s time to cut the poop.

Suffolk County’s waters are inundated with nitrogen pollution and the main culprit is wastewater coming from our homes, officials said this week. There are more than 360,000 homes in the county using a 5,000-year-old system for waste management — septic tanks and cesspools. The waste from these systems is leaching into the groundwater, causing high amounts of nitrogen pollution. On June 20, the NYS Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University proposed the new technologies they aim to implement in order to restore our polluted waters to a healthy state.

The design is simple, officials said: utilizing locally sourced, natural materials to provide a system that is both efficient and economically feasible.

This is not just an environmental issue. Suffolk County’s waters underlie the foundation of the state’s greater economy, from real estate to tourism. If nothing is done to counteract continuous contamination, officials argued, the very identity of Long Island could be compromised.

The center is taking action, and its members shared that action with the public on Thursday, June 23.

“These simple systems, comprised of sand and finely ground wood, are demonstrating an ability to treat household wastewater as well or better than the most advanced wastewater treatment plants,” said Christopher Gobler, the center’s co-director and professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “Similar in footprint and basic functionality to a drain field, the most common form of onsite wastewater dispersal around the country, we call them nitrogen-removing biofilters, and the next step is to pilot them at residences to see if they can consistently perform in more dynamic situations.”

To accompany the high nitrogen-removal rates, these nitrogen-removing biofilters are proving effective in removing other unwanted contaminants from the water, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, Gobler said.

Harold Walker, center co-director, professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University, reinforced the new system’s viability, adding, “they are passive systems by design, which means they are low maintenance and require little energy to operate.”

Biofilters are not the only technology the center is working on. Ever since they were funded by the state environmental protection fund in 2015, their collaborative efforts with leading experts from the public and private sectors have produced several treatment options all in the name of providing cost-effective, high-performance waste-management systems suitable for widespread implementation on Long Island. However, the biofilters end up receiving most of the praise.

According to Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, the technology “is among the most promising we’ve seen in Long Island’s effort to restore water quality.”

Regardless of the obvious potential, it is still up to Suffolk County to approve the systems for commercial use. In an exclusive interview with TBR News Media, Gobler said, “some systems will be approved this year.”

As part of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services demonstration program, the center should see local testing as early as this fall. Pilot installations are already underway at a test center, Gobler said.

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It’s not hard to find dirty spots in our local waters. Photo by Elana Glowatz

There’s no time to waste.

Actually that’s not true — Suffolk County residents have plenty of time to add our own waste to our water supply, and we do it every day.

That’s why it bothers us that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge a $1 water quality protection fee for every 1,000 gallons of water that homes and businesses use will not be on the ballot for voter approval this November.

He has estimated it would generate roughly $75 million each year toward the environmental cause. Normally, new taxes and fees bother us even more, but these dollars would not be just thrown into the general fund. The plan was to put the money toward expanding sewer systems in Suffolk County — a dire need — and reducing the nitrogen pollution in the water we drink and in which different species live.

Much of Suffolk relies on cesspools and septic systems that can leak nitrogen from our waste into the ground. Nitrogen is in the air and water naturally, but high levels are dangerous. One harmful side effect of nitrogen is increased algae growth, which decreases the water’s oxygen supply that fish and other creatures need to live and produces toxins and bacteria that are harmful to humans.

According to Bellone’s administration, state lawmakers would not get on board with the idea to put his water surcharge on the ballot so the voters could make the final decision. Officials said more time was needed before the proposal was brought to a vote.

On the county level, Republican lawmakers also stood strongly against the proposal.

Most people use 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, so some people may have had to pay up to an extra $37 a year under the fee proposal. Big whoop — if it could help us stop poisoning ourselves and the rest of the ecosystem, we’ll pay up.

We’re disappointed this measure won’t be on the ballot this year. But it could be an opportunity for Bellone to show some leadership by making sure progress is made before 2017. Instead of worrying about being disliked for adding $37 to residents’ water bills each year, he should just take the tough action and enact the surcharge. We’ve already waited too long to get rid of our cesspools. Let’s not waste any more time and water.

The town is taking steps to reduce the amount of nitrogen in its groundwater. File photo

The quality of the water on Long Island is worsening, and the Town of Brookhaven took an important step to reverse that trend.

The town board voted unanimously to approve a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) that establishes nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones will prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems, effective in January 2017.

“We’ve all watched our waters degrade over the last 50 years,” Romaine said after the vote at a town board meeting held on June 9. “We all know part of the problem is nitrogen.”

Romaine has long been an advocate for improving the island’s water quality on the town and county levels. He addressed the problem at his State of the Town address in March.

“Nitrogen from our sanitary systems, our lawns, our golf courses and our farms is impacting our bays and harbors, our freshwater lakes and streams and our drinking water,” he said. “The solutions to this problem are neither easy nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option; we must act now. Our future depends on us addressing this problem.”

Representatives from three nonprofit organizations focusing on water quality spoke in support of the law last Thursday.

“I’d like to congratulate you guys and commend you again on your environmental leadership,” George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said. “It’s timely. It’s needed and I’m glad that you’re moving forward with it because there just seems to be a lot of stuff going on with harbors and waters and nitrogen but nothing seems to be getting done. So this is a good thing to see that you’re actually seeing it through and that there will be an ordinance here that will start to change what’s going on in our waters.”

Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O and Doug Swesty of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition also spoke in strong support of the law.

“It’s critical that you do this because of the glaciated terrain in which we live on here in Long Island, that 500 feet represents approximately two years of travel time from the time something enters a cesspool or septic tank within a 500-foot radius until it reaches the water body,” Swesty said. “Groundwater travel times here are about two to three feet a day. So it’s critical that we implement something to protect our waterways from discharges that are put into the groundwater.”

According to the town’s website, there has been a 93 percent decline in Great South Bay clam harvests as a result of brown tides, which are brought about by nitrogen seepage. The island’s bay scallop industry has collapsed almost entirely due to nitrogen-caused algal blooms. These issues are in addition to the overall decreasing quality of Long Island’s water.

The law will have an added provision protecting homeowners who incur damage thanks to a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, allowing them other options should requiring the purchase of a new system be a source of financial hardship.

Third District Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden), who is in favor of that protection, supports the law as a whole.

“I think it’s a great goal we’ve set for the town and for other towns as well,” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pitches the proposal. Photo from Steve Bellone

Suffolk County is delaying a bold proposal that would have charged residents a minimal fee to enhance water quality protection efforts.

In April, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) staged a press conference in the company of environmentalists and lawmakers to announce his plan to address nitrogen pollution in drinking and surface water across the region by charging an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water. It needed the state legislature’s blessing in order to go before Suffolk County residents in a referendum vote in November, and this month, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said in reports that the county would be holding off on the plan to allow more time before putting it on the ballot.

The proposal would have kicked in in 2018 and established what Bellone called a “water quality protection fee,” which would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said. He estimated the $1 surcharge would have generated roughly $75 million in revenue each year to be solely dedicated to reducing nitrogen pollution — and still keep Suffolk County’s water rates nearly 40 percent lower than the national average.

Peter Scully, deputy county executive and head of the water quality initiative, said in an interview that some state lawmakers showed no interest in advancing the proposal, forcing the county’s hand before putting it to a referendum.

He said that Bellone preferred this kind of surcharge be decided by residents via referendum.

“We received kind of a sobering indication from the state Senate that there was not enough support for the proposal to let the people of Suffolk County vote,” he said. “We decided that this appears to be more of a timing issue.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, endorsed the initial county proposal but said he was “mad as hell” over the decision to halt the plan for another year. In an interview with TBR News Media, Amper said the administration was handcuffed by state lawmakers who did not want to see Bellone’s plan come to fruition.

“If I had children, and they pulled something like this, I’d send them to their room,” Amper said. “The Bellone administration felt the Senate had made this decision for them. It was killed — not withdrawn.”

Amper said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) expressed little interest in allowing Bellone’s proposal to come to a vote this November and accused him of playing political games with the environment.

“This is something they can’t not do something about,” Amper said. “It’s the biggest environmental and economic crisis this island ever faced.”

A spokesman for Flanagan issued the following statement: “Our office has always considered the merits of any legislative proposal advanced by Suffolk County’s elected officials, and we will continue to do so in the future.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — a known environmental activist — said the measure would have done wonders for the state’s water supply.

“We’re really looking at an opportunity to correct some deficiencies that could, if left uncorrected, unhinge our economy, which is based upon people bathing and recreating in our coastal waters, fishing and otherwise enjoying our waters,” he said when it was announced. “For the first time, we are pulling a program together that integrates both our fresh water and saltwater in one protection initiative, and that is very significant.”

Some lawmakers, including county legislators Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) staged a press conference following Bellone’s proposal to express opposition, calling it unwelcomed taxation.

George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, also stood behind Bellone’s proposal when it was announced and said it would benefit Suffolk County for decades to come. He said it was “one of the most far-reaching and important public policy issues in decades,” and said it was important to proceed slowly and “get it right” moving forward.

“I worked with the supervisor of Brookhaven in 2003 when the town put forward a $100 million dollar open space fund referendum that received over 70 percent voter approval — but we spent many months going out to the various communities and explaining why it was needed,” he said. “You can’t cut corners on big policy issues and when you need the voters to approve new funding sources like the proposed water surcharge.”

Roughly 90 percent of the population in Nassau County operates under an active wastewater treatment system through connections to sewage plants. But in Suffolk County, there are more than 360,000 individual cesspools and septic systems — representing more unsewered homes than in the entire state of New Jersey — that are more likely to release nitrogen into the ground and surface water.

Scully said the county would be workshopping the proposal with civics and business and other stakeholders across Suffolk in order to perfect the proposition before putting it to a vote.

“If there are folks who are opposed to our proposal and don’t have one of their own, that means they’re not concerned about solving the problem,” he said. “We’re hoping we can get productive discussions.”

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Discharging homes’ wastewater into sewer systems could keep harmful substances out of our water supply. File photo

Our water supply is pooped.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in Suffolk County run on their own septic systems or cesspools, which leak nitrogen from waste into the soil and, thus, into our groundwater and other water sources. Elevated nitrogen levels are dangerous because they mess with our ecosystem — one effect is promoting algae growth, which decreases the water’s oxygen supply that fish and other creatures need to live and produces toxins and bacteria that are harmful to humans.

Sewers are a more convenient and modern technology for areas with populations at least as dense as Suffolk County. But, more importantly, sewer systems are also a crucial line of defense for our drinking water and the healthy waterways we treasure.

Legislators and community members complain all the time about how Suffolk needs to hook up more properties to sewer systems, but they also say there’s no money to do it. County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used — and to put those dollars into a special account dedicated to sewering Suffolk — could help.

The funds collected would be used in conjunction with other funding, such as from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $383 million initiative to support clean water infrastructure.

To put Bellone’s proposed surcharge into perspective, that’s $1 for every 50 days of showers for a family of four, based on average water usage numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s another $1 for roughly every 333 toilet flushes. Add $1 for every 40 loads of laundry in a newer model of washing machine.

For a single-person measurement, each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the federal agency. Those on the higher end of the spectrum, then, would be dishing out $1 every 10 days with the goal of a healthier environment — or just shy of $37 a year.

Reaching deeper into taxpayers’ pockets is not ideal, but there is simply no other way to produce sewer funding of the magnitude Suffolk County needs without asking the public to chip in somehow.

Bellone’s proposal needs state approval before the measure can go onto ballots in November for voters to weigh in. We hope our neighbors would support the surcharge.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pitches the proposal. Photo from Steve Bellone

Voters in Suffolk County could soon be faced with deciding whether or not they’d like to pay more for their water to improve its quality.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) brought a big crew of environmentalists and lawmakers with him on Monday to announce his plan to address nitrogen pollution in drinking and surface water across the region by charging an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water. If it receives the state’s blessing, the plan could go before Suffolk County residents in a referendum vote in November.

The proposal would establish what Bellone called a water quality protection fee, which would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said. He estimated the $1 surcharge would generate roughly $75 million in revenue each year to be solely dedicated to reducing nitrogen pollution — and still keep Suffolk County’s water rates nearly 40 percent lower than the national average.

“What we have seen over the decades is a decimation of our surface waters and the latest numbers showing disturbing trends in the groundwater,” Bellone said. “Clearly, the overwhelming source of that nitrogen pollution is from us. We have 360,000 homes on old septic and cesspool systems.”

Bellone said the proposal would supplement similar efforts from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who established a $383 million investment in expanding sewers in Suffolk County. The governor launched the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University and provided funding for the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan over the past several years to help create recurring revenue for clean water infrastructure.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, endorsed the county proposal as Suffolk County rising to the occasion. He referred to nitrogen as the chief culprit behind the county’s water pollution, coming mostly from wastewater.

“If we don’t take this step, we are putting our collective future at serious risk.”

“Two-thirds of it in Suffolk County is coming from 360,000 homes with 5,000-year-old technology,” he said Monday. “We know what to do about it. We’ve studied it. The public is satisfied that … investment had to be made in studying it. Now it’s time for action.”

Roughly 90 percent of the population in Nassau County operates under an active wastewater treatment system through connections to sewage plants. But in Suffolk County, there are more than 360,000 individual cesspools and septic systems — representing more unsewered homes than in the entire state of New Jersey — that are more likely to release nitrogen into the ground and surface water.

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, said the initiative was necessary for the future of the environment.

“It is about building a wastewater treatment system that ensures the environmental integrity of our county, the underlying foundation of our economy and the value of our homes,” he said. “The Long Island Contractors’ Association supports this proposal because if we don’t take this step, we are putting our collective future at serious risk. It is as simple, and crucial, as that.”

The state must authorize the proposal in order for it to be placed on a ballot in November.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — a known environmental activist — said the measure would do wonders for the state’s water supply.

“We’re really looking at an opportunity to correct some deficiencies that could, if left uncorrected, unhinge our economy, which is based upon people bathing and recreating in our coastal waters, fishing and otherwise enjoying our waters,” he said. “For the first time, we are pulling a program together that integrates both our fresh water and saltwater in one protection initiative, and that is very significant.”

The Town of Brookhaven held a public hearing last Thursday night before adopting a low-nitrogen zone for various properties 500 feet from major water bodies, like Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors, requiring all new development or expansions to install low-nitrogen septic systems rather than standard cesspools. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) endorsed the county plan as well for not only increasing the momentum away from nitrogen pollution, but also for providing voters with the choice.

“I applaud County Executive Bellone for his leadership in advancing this plan to restore water quality across this county and, more importantly, for proposing that the people of Suffolk decide whether the plan should be implemented,” he said. “Though some may disagree with it, no other elected official has offered a plan to reverse nitrogen pollution on this scale.”

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Pumping nitrogen into our local waters can contribute to fish kills and have other nasty environmental effects. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

There is no need more basic than clean water. We need it in its simplest form to survive, but we also need it to be clean so that it can sustain the animals and plants we eat and support the environments we live in. So why aren’t we trying harder to avoid pumping it with toxins?

Tens of thousands of dead bunker fish have recently washed up on eastern Long Island, killed by low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Algal blooms are a cause of those low oxygen levels, and that’s where we come in — the blooms, in turn, can be caused by excess nitrogen in the water. How does that nitrogen get there? It can come from our septic and sewage treatment systems and from the fertilizers we use on our nicely manicured lawns, to name just a few sources.

We may not be able to avoid using the toilet, but we can easily refrain from dumping fertilizers with harmful chemicals into the ground and our water supply. But many of us are operating on obsolete waste systems and our governments should be making it a top priority — in action, not just rhetoric — to move communities over from septic to sewer.

This is undoubtedly a costly process, but it has benefits beyond the immediate. For example, sewer systems enable and encourage development, which is important for all of the downtown areas we are working to revitalize. Revitalized downtowns could help keep young people on Long Island, reversing the brain drain that is the source of such frequent sound bites for our politicians.

Shoring up our water management plans would create a ripple effect throughout so many other important items on our political and social agendas. Without clean water, none of these ambitious improvements will be achieved. We are calling for a heightened awareness from both our neighbors and our public officials not to let our water initiatives run dry.

Suffolk officials discuss environmental issues facing Long Island after thousands of dead fish washed ashore in Riverhead. Photo by Alex Petroski

The estimated nearly 100,000 dead bunker fish that have washed ashore in Riverhead may seem astounding, but it wasn’t all that surprising to the panel of experts brought before the Suffolk County Health Committee on Thursday.

In late May, the thousands of dead bunker fish, formally known as Atlantic menhaden fish, began appearing in the Peconic Estuary, an area situated between the North and South Forks of Long Island. According to a June 2 press release from the Peconic Estuary Program, the bunker fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. This shortage of oxygen is called hypoxia.

Walter Dawydiak, director of the county’s environmental quality division, who serves on the panel, which was organized by the health committee chairman, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), testified that the number of dead fish was at or approaching 100,000.

“This one is bigger and worse than any,” Dawydiak said.

According to the PEP, which is part of the National Estuary Program and seeks to conserve the estuary, bunker are filter-feeding fish and an important food source for many predatory fish, including striped bass and blue fish.

Alison Branco, the program’s director, said the fish are likely being chased into shallow waters by predators, but are dying because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters. In addition, an algae bloom is contributing to the low levels and is fueled by excess nitrogen loading. Much of that nitrogen comes from septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizer use.

“We’ve reach a point where this kind of hypoxia was run of the mill. We expect it every summer,” Branco, who also served as a panelist, said following the hearing.

While magnitude of the fish kill was astounding, the experts said they weren’t so surprised that it happened.

“I definitely thought it could happen at any time,” Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University, said in a one-on-one interview after the panel hearing. “There’s been an oxygen problem there all along.”

Gobler called it largest fish kill he’d seen in 20 years.

According to panel members, the worst of the fish kill occurred between May 27 and May 30.

Branco did suggest that this shocking environmental event could be turned into a positive if the right measures are taken sooner rather than later.

“It’s always shocking to see a fish kill,” she said. “As much as we don’t want to have things like that happen I think the silver lining is that it did capture the public’s attention.”

Prevention of a fish kill this large is possible, according to Branco. While preventing the harmful algal blooms is not possible, reducing the frequency and severity can be done if the amount of nitrogen in the coastal water supply is controlled.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental policy advocacy group, agreed that curtailing the amount of nitrogen in the water is the easiest and most impactful way for prevention of a fish kill of this magnitude.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Esposito said in response to a question about the daunting task of fixing the Island’s sewage treatment techniques and facilities on a limited budget.

Esposito described the roughly $5 million from New York State, which was allotted to Suffolk County to deal with cleaning the coastal water supply, as seed money. Esposito and Branco both said they believe the commitment of time and money required to solve the nitrogen problem in the water supply will be vast.

“We can do this,” she said. “We have to do it. We have no choice.”

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