Peconic Great South Baykeeper
Septic Management

The number one threat to our precious waters is the influx of nitrogen – a harmful consequence of on-site wastewater discharge systems (OWDS), commonly known as cesspools.  A critical, but decidedly unglamorous issue, the discussion of septic reform has received little traction on the legislative front until now. Peconic Baykeeper is committed to keeping this essential reform effort moving.

This past July, Peconic Baykeeper’s Baywatch 2010 entitled “Nutrient Pollution: A Plague to Our Waters” received substantial press coverage island-wide, resulting in a significant increase in public awareness of the deleterious effects of septic wastewater on our bays, as well as heightened interest from local legislators and a public commitment from Suffolk County to thoroughly review the current sanitary code in order to provide greater surface water protection.  In response to the report, former Suffolk County Commissioner for Energy and the Environment, Carrie Meek Gallagher, told Newsday, “We all agree that nitrogen pollution is a problem and, yes, our regulations could be doing a better job at pollution reduction.”

Almost simultaneously, New York State added the South Shore bays of Suffolk County (Great South, Moriches, Quantuck and Shinnecock) to the “Impaired Waters” list due to the reoccurring Brown Tide blooms, the result of elevated nitrogen levels.  The designation is reserved for the most critically and systemically weakened waterbodies.  The recent listing is imperative because it formally acknowledges the decline of our local bays and is a qualifier for funding sources to assist in paying for remediation efforts. This is a critical moment in time for our waters.  The link between wastewater and the degradation of our bays has been known anecdotally for years, but now we have the scientific and agency backing that’s needed in order to justify and propel substantial reforms. 

Although New York State sets the standards for OWDS, county and town governments have both the power and responsibility to regulate wastewater more stringently, as has been done in nearby states.  In Barnstable, Massachusetts, for example, a seaside location similar to Long Island in its geographic make-up, municipal regulations now require a greater separation between cesspools and high groundwater elevation, mandatory inspections, and the use of innovative alternative septic systems.  Barnstable offers homeowner assistance programs for system upgrades.   Similarly, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which has more than 1.1 million acres of land, has one of the most progressive septic codes in the nation.  The commission requires the use of innovative alternative systems to meet stringent groundwater nitrogen standards.

Currently, Suffolk County ranks among the least stringent on septic regulations nation-wide.  This is particularly significant because roughly 75% of residences in the county are served by OWDS, and the porous nature of Long Island’s sandy soils facilitates the movement of wastewater into our groundwater, which leads to the surface waters of our bays, ponds and rivers.

Peconic Baykeeper implores our legislators to move quickly on this issue.  Our bays are the engine of our economy and the hallmark of our way of life here on Long Island, and the writing is on the wall in terms of how our treasured natural assets will fare if we do not institute more restrictive septic codes soon.  Most importantly, there is no need to reinvent the wheel – other regulatory authorities around the country are far ahead of us in the area of septic reform, so there are many tried and true regulations and programs for Suffolk County to consider and implement.

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Nitrogen chokes our bays