New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul visited Stony Brook University on Monday, April 13 for a presentation about the impact of excessive nitrogen in Long Island soil and water and the solutions the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences developed to battle the contamination.
Christopher Gobler, associate dean of Research at SoMAS, gave the presentation on behalf of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology (CCWT), which was established at SBU in the fall.
Gobler said there were three main goals of the presentation: to inform Hochul of the impacts of excessive nitrogen, to introduce the alternative methods innovated by the CCWT and to contribute to the Long Island Nitrogen Mitigation and Management Plan, which was recently given a $5 million budget from the state.
“It is clearly something that Stony Brook can assist in and help with,” Gobler said. “So the goal was to make sure she understood that Stony Brook is at the ready to assist with that plan, bring the best science to that plan.”
Hochul said she hopes government funds can be a driving force for the CCWT to partner with businesses to commercialize its developments. For graduates, this would lead to training in the private industry and more jobs.
“This is a perfect example of the governor’s idea to have a START-UP NY in place,” Hochul said. “And what is does is it aligns the private sector, with the public sector, with academia.”
This issue exists beyond Long Island, existing in states like Rhode Island, New Jersey and Florida. If the university is successful in marketing its septic system and cesspool solutions, then this industry can reach all over the world, according to Hochul.
Gobler said Long Island is a watershed, so materials on land enter the groundwater and surface water through precipitation, infiltration and evaporation. As the population of Suffolk County increases, the nitrogen levels rise. As a result, marshes have decreased by 20 to 80 percent around Long Island. Marshes are crucial to prevent flooding, such as that observed during Hurricane Sandy.
According to Gobler, since 1930, there has been a 90 percent loss in seagrass, a vital home for fish, which subsequently resulted in a loss of an estimated $10 million in revenue for Long Island since 1975. An increase in nitrogen affects marine life in two ways: It produces harmful algae which contaminate seafood and also leads to low oxygen levels, a condition known as hypoxia, that harms marine life. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 70 percent of Long Island coastal waters are inadequate for fish survival.
Gobler said most homes on Long Island have a septic system that leaks nitrogen into the environment. The new technology would remove the nitrate before it ends up in groundwater, a process known as denitrification. There are nearly 360,000 septic systems that need to be improved, with each unit costing almost $50,000. The research would work to provide the smartest nitrogen regulating systems, reduce costs and lower infrastructure.
As a swimmer, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst noticed the difference in the waters first hand where she lives on the bay and knew she had to help solve the problem. She calls the research center the “Silicon Valley” of waste water technology, and said these meetings are important because government officials experience the research on a personal level.
“It has an economic development and job creation idea behind it,” Throne-Holst said. “The fact that the Lieutenant Governor came out here and took the time to hear the presentation and the excitement that Stony Brook is generating around this is great.”
According to Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dennis Assanis, the research of the CCWT is an exciting experiential learning opportunity for not just graduate students, but undergraduates as well. He said the goal is to get students of SoMAS, the Civil Engineering Program and the Sustainability Studies Program to apply what they have learned in the lecture hall to this real-life issue.
“There will be lots of undergraduate opportunities at all levels, some who will just be doing research of literature and other cases experiments or analyses,” Gobler said. “There is always room for [undergraduates] as well. At least for me, it’s always been part of my research—a tiered team with undergraduates in the mix.”