Perspective: Let the people vote for clean water

Perspective: Let the people vote for clean water

Former New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright speaks during an environmental protest outside the William H. Rogers Legislature Building in Hauppauge on Tuesday, July 25. File photo by Raymond Janis
By Steve Englebright

Pure water is our most essential natural resource.

Suffolk’s economy is anchored by our two largest industries which are tourism and agriculture. Each of these forms of commerce needs clean water in order to remain viable. Polluted beaches and contaminated produce will not draw visitors from afar nor will they sustain farming. Public health needs, however, are more concerning. Living on top of our drinking water has proven to be very challenging because it is easily contaminated by our daily activities. The chemicals we continuously introduce into local ground and surface waters are what threatens the health of our families, communities and economy, each of which depends upon a generous supply of predictably pure drinking water.

‘How we manage this issue will guide the destiny of our county.’

— Steve Englebright

All of the water that we drink or use for everything from industry to personal hygiene is sourced from wells that tap Long Island’s aquifers which are natural water-bearing sediment horizons. Long Island’s aquifers are a reservoir of rain-absorbing sand and gravel that is everywhere below our feet. This fresh groundwater eventually seeps into the tidewaters that define our island’s edges. Virtually all of our fresh and salt waters are connected which is why pollution that enters the system on land eventually will contaminate our harbors and bays.

Scientific research has proven that the most widespread source of groundwater contamination in Suffolk is human waste, especially nitrate-rich urine, that is flushed into Suffolk’s more than 380,000 cesspools. Because cesspools do very little to cleanse the waste that enters into them they are a major source of nitrate contamination of our ground and surface waters. When any large amount of this chemical enters a body of surface water it may cause explosive plant growth. Seasonal decay of this overgrowth often causes ecological harm such as fish kills.

In recent years millions of state and county dollars have been invested into learning how to halt the progressive decline of water quality. This work led directly to a proposed referendum which is entitled the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act. This legislation — which would require voter approval — economizes by consolidating numerous county-owned sewer districts and dedicating 1/8 of 1% of county sales tax toward installing both technologically advanced cesspool upgrades and new sewers for compact business districts. No property taxes are involved. Seventy-five percent of the sales tax that would be collected could be used to address the greatest need which is to provide grants to homeowners to cover most of the costs of installing advanced wastewater treatment technology within each cesspool.

If approved by Suffolk’s voters, money raised could be leveraged to attract matching federal and state dollars to further reduce local costs.

Because of the importance of protecting reserves of pure fresh water this issue has historically been a bipartisan legislative priority that has largely been off limits to red and blue bickering. Unfortunately, that wholesome tradition was compromised on July 25 when the Suffolk Legislature’s Republican majority voted unanimously to deny residents the opportunity to vote on the issue of pure water. By killing this highly anticipated public referendum, citizens have been blocked from directly weighing in on efforts to protect and improve ground and surface waters. 

It has been widely reported that this outcome was insisted upon by political party operatives who want to believe that this environmental referendum would bring out so many Democrats to vote that it would disadvantage Republican candidates in the election on Nov. 7. As the voter-approved $4.2 billion New York State Environmental Bond Act recently demonstrated this is just plain wrong. That referendum passed easily last November even though there was a low Democratic turnout. 

Tellingly, none of the Republican candidates for the many county offices that will be on the November ballot showed up at the hearing of July 25 to speak for passage of the referendum. Their absence made it clear that the county Republican Party has turned away from Suffolk’s most urgent environmental issue in an attempt to profit politically from a voter suppression scheme.

Cleaning up our water sources requires an informed and engaged citizenry. The county’s Water Quality Restoration Act referendum would enable vigorous public education on this subject to occur as voters of all political persuasions strive to inform themselves ahead of their vote. Unfortunately, by canceling the referendum county Republicans have lost their way; they should not have taken from Suffolk’s residents their constitutional right to say through their votes what the county’s future should be. 

Trying to suppress voter turnout in Suffolk by blocking public participation in the single most important economic and environmental issue affecting the county’s future contradicts the bedrock premise and promise of our democracy. It was wrong to cancel every local voter’s sacred right to express their opinion in a public referendum. 

How we manage this issue will guide the destiny of our county. Clearly, the people of Suffolk deserve to have a chance to vote either for or against clean water at the next opportunity which could be as soon as next year. This crisis demands that we again all work together. 

Restoring direct voter participation to the most critical questions relating to our sole source of drinking water and related quality of life issues is the best way to protect and enhance the equity of our homes, the health of our loved ones and the viability of our regional economy.

Steve Englebright served as New York State assemblyman for the 4th District from 1992-2022. He is a Democratic candidate this November for the Suffolk County Legislature, running against Anthony Figliola (R-East Setauket) for the 5th Legislative District.