The boisterous far east end of the North Fork, with its limited aquifer and activist civic groups, has long been a place where water issues are hotly debated by the community.
This Saturday’s East Marion Community Association forum was no exception, when North Fork Environmental Council and Group for the East End leaders attempted to get the community to sign on to a letter asking Southold Town to form a water commission, which would prioritize areas in town where wastewater treatment may be necessary.
The forum was aptly titled “Troubled Waters,” and included talks by Sarah Meyland, Director of the Center for Water Resources Management at the New York Institute of Technology; engineer Joe Fischetti, who has long been a critic of environmentalists’ proposals to fix leaking septic systems; County Legislator Al Krupski and Peconic Green Growth Executive Director Glynis Berry. Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister was anticipated to attend, but sent board member Dan Gulizio in his stead due to a family emergency.
After a spirited discussion on wastewater issues, North Fork Environmental Council President Bill Toedter asked the group to consider sending the letter, which he said asks Southold Town to form a committee of volunteers, including scientists and community members, who would advise the town board on water issues. He said New York State will likely mandate that towns form water commissions in the future.
Though EMCA leader Ruth Ann Bramson said there were “ten times more yes than no” responses on sending the letter from 60 residents who recently filled out a survey on water issues, about a third of the two dozen residents at Saturday’s meeting raised their hands when asked who didn’t want to send the letter.
“Southampton already has one going,” said Mr. Toedter. “Once Southold does this, we will have a cooperative and coordinated East End push…. It’s incumbent on all groups to become active. If we participate in the process early on, we’ll be more powerful. You guys are very active. That has a lot of pull.”
Some attendees in the audience said they worried a water commission would lead to a bloated number of government jobs or sewers that could lead to increased development on the North Fork, while others pointed out that EMCA has long been a proactive group and should be proactive on this issue.
“It would be a non-binding, volunteer committee,” said Group for the East End Vice President Aaron Virgin. “Any suggestions would go to the town board and a public hearing.”
But, after some heated debate, EMCA’s board decided not to pursue sending the letter.
“It seems like there’s too much controversy. We’ll put it aside,” said Ruth Ann Bramson, who told the environmentalists that EMCA will need to do more outreach.
“When we do speak, it’s not just the board. It’s the whole community,” she said. “We just have some work to do.”
Saturday’s morning-long session at EMCA was jam-packed with technical discussions. Ms. Meyland began the forum by pointing out that the state DEC is responsible for managing all of the water resources contained in reservoirs and their associated river basins upstate, but has played no role in overseeing the quality and quantity of water in Long Island’s aquifer.
“They are not there to be a voice for the resource. That’s what we really need,” she said of the DEC, adding that the state has drastically cut back water quality staff at the DEC, and many of the remaining staff members are dealing with issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing for natural gas upstate.
“Fracking also takes away DEC resources,” she said. “How much water can we take out of the aquifer safely? No one knows. It’s a fundamental question if you want to manage the resource.”
She added that the Suffolk County Water Authority simply manages its wells and infrastructure and ensures drinking water safety here, while the Clean Water Act only mandates the EPA take action on surface water quality issues.
The acceptable drinking water standard for nitrogen is 10 parts per million, while marine ecosystems begin to deteriorate when the nitrogen level reaches just .4 parts per million. This discrepancy alone has created a disconnect on Long Island between how environmental and public health advocates view pollution.
Though Suffolk County has a role in placement of septic systems, “there’s no legal mandate for counties to do anything,” said Ms. Meyland.
Mr. Krupski said, however, that he thinks towns “play a huge role” in water quality issues because of their land use decisions, and the Suffolk County Health Department does quite a bit to protect Long Island’s water.
He said the county plans to put pilot small scale sewage treatment systems in place this year, in order to test if they should be approved by the health department.
Ms. Berry has been compiling the results of a water survey taken in East Marion and Orient over the past few years, and she’s also doing cost-benefit analysis of small scale septic systems.
She said a recent study of sewering the Southampton hamlet of Flanders found it would cost $65,000 per household, while treatment within a household’s septic tank can cost between $12,000 and $35,000 per house. Small scale systems that serve 100 homes would cost about $35,000 per household, she said, but if they were scaled up to serve 400 houses, the cost would drop to $25,000.
Even though those costs can be enormous in the scope of a family’s budget, Ms. Berry said the purpose of the survey was to point out neighborhoods where treatment of waste would have the greatest impact on the health of the bay, and target those areas for pilot projects using grant funding.
Much of the development on the North Fork is on small lots surrounding the bay, where the groundwater reaches the estuary in zero to two years, she said, and that is especially true in East Marion, which is comprised of just two square miles of land area on a narrow isthmus between the mainland and Orient.
“We need to pick what works in a location. We don’t need to do it universally,” she said. “How do you organize for that?”
Mr. Fischetti said he was skeptical about the entire notion that nitrogen entering the bays is the result of failing septic systems. He pointed out that, not long after World War II, farmers began dumping large quantities of new urea-based fertilizers on farmland on Long Island. He said he believes that fertilizer is just now making its way into the water of the bays, causing harmful algae blooms that hurt fish and shellfish populations.
He added that a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute study used to link failing septic systems to nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay had used present land use data to correlate with the level of nitrogen in the water, not taking into account that at the time the nitrogen entered the groundwater, there were far more farms than houses upstream from the bay. He estimated that, at the rate groundwater flows from the center of the island to the bays, those fertilizer nitrates would be reaching the bay right about now.
“We don’t have to spend billions on sanitary systems today when we don’t have the technology,” he said. “I want to protect our water too. But it has to be done correctly. You need to do the science.”
Mr. Gulizio, from the Peconic Baykeeper’s office, said that he wanted the community to understand that, if they don’t organize to protect water quality, plenty of developers, engineers and architects who are paid for what they do will be setting public policy.
“All water quality issues are directly related to land use decisions,” he said. “If you’re not participating, someone else is. The only way to better balance the scales is participating.”