As the weather starts to heat up, Long Islanders headed to local beaches may have to share the water with an unwanted visitor: toxic algae.
Last year, toxic algae was found in nearly every major bay and estuary across Long Island, according to data compiled by the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization.
President of Friends of Bellport Bay, Thomas Schultz, explained that the excess algae blocks sunlight from penetrating the water column, thereby inhibiting photosynthesis. “We do have some bodies of water like that where there’s hardly any life at all because there’s no oxygen, there’s no photosynthesis,” he said.
This problem is due in great part, to an excessive amount of nitrogen-heavy sewage seeping into local waterways.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Coastal Research found that outdated septic and cesspool systems accounted for 69 percent of nitrogen in the Great South Bay.
“Seventy percent of Suffolk County’s population is just using these septics which allow for untreated sewage and nitrogen to enter into groundwater which discharges into freshwater lakes and also our bays and estuaries,” Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said. “We’re not treating our sewage and we’re allowing it to mix with our drinking water supply and our surface water. That’s crazy.”
In an attempt to lessen the problem, the Suffolk County Legislature placed a full ban on new cesspools last December. Similar legislation was passed in 1973, but a loophole in the old law made it so that homeowners with existing cesspools didn’t have to add in septic tanks. While septic tanks help to filter and drain raw sewage, cesspools alone simply store the waste until it can be pumped out.
“I would like to say that we, as a county, have adopted the policies necessary to adequately address our region’s nitrogen pollution epidemic, but in reality this gets us closer to where we should have been in the decades following 1973,” Legislator Kara Hahn stated in a press release after the law was passed.
Starting this July, professionals in the wastewater industry must report septic and cesspool failures to the county. By July of 2019, the county will require residents to obtain a permit when installing new septic systems.
President of Certified Cesspool and Drain Inc., Salvatore Motta, said the law initially caused alarm among wastewater professionals, but the county has since been doing its best to accommodate their needs.
“One of the concerns that the industry had going forward with this was that we can’t wait for a permit for weeks if someone needs an emergency installation,” Motta said. “I think what the county is going to do is we’re going to be able to go out and install these tanks on an honor system but we have to fill out a permit after the fact and take pictures of the installations and send them back to Suffolk County so they have record of what we did… It’s another way to help protect the consumers and the people of Long Island.”
On the other hand, Legislator Robert Trotta contends that the law is largely inconsequential and that the real purpose is to raise revenue through permit fees.
“It’s a total fraud. Adding a septic tank does nothing. It doesn’t treat the nitrogen in the water at all,” Trotta said.
Trotta suggested that the only way to cut down on nitrogen pollution is to install specially designed wastewater systems called nitrogen reducing bio-filters.
Suffolk County currently offers $10,000 grants for homeowners who install these bio-filters, but Motta said this is not enough incentive for many Long Islanders.
“The average guy in Brentwood who’s just trying to make a living, owns a landscaping company, he’s not gonna want to spend 30 grand on a septic system whether Suffolk County gives him $10,000 or not.”
Despite this hefty initial investment, postdoctoral scholar at Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology, Stuart Waugh, suggested that purchasing a bio-filter may actually be more cost-effective in the long run.
“When your cesspool is failing it can fail multiple times over the course of several years so it can be onerous, it can be very very expensive,” he said. “With the county’s financing terms it can actually be more advantageous to get a new system that will work well now.”
Scientists at the Center for Clean Water Technology are currently designing new bio-filters that they hope will be more accessible to the general public.
“Our goals are to have a system that reduces nitrogen to under 10 mg per meter that costs under $10,000 and that will last for at least 30 years,” Waugh said.
Until that happens, environmental activists like Schultz continue to push for temporary solutions that could lessen the detrimental effects of nitrogen pollution.
“One of our initiatives is to plant shellfish in Bellport Bay,” Schultz said, adding that shellfish consume algae which helps to remove nitrogen from the water column and restore healthy oxygen levels.
Friends of Bellport Bay is also spreading awareness about the harmful effects of traditional fertilizer, which has a dangerously high nitrogen content. Earlier this year they bought 400 pounds of special eco-friendly fertilizer from a nursery in the east end and set up a central pick-up location where community members could easily purchase the low-nitrogen alternative.
“I think the bays are in a position now in the last 10 years where they’re teetering on complete ecosystem failure,” Schultz said. “Unfortunately we’re at the brink but because we’re at the brink, people are a lot more aware of the issue because they’re faced with dire circumstances.”