As last year’s barrage of toxic tides made clear, the bays and estuaries that surround Eastern Long Island are facing multiple challenges, from all angles. Some of those challenges, like warming and acidifying waters, are global trends that are beyond our ability to address directly.

But scientists have proven, again and again, that nitrogen leaching from Suffolk County’s aging on-site cesspools is the nutrient that is intensifying these algae blooms, and making them more toxic. We can all have a direct impact on this problem, and the closer you live to the water, the more impact you can have.

The cost of installing denitrifying septic systems, known in the trade by the unmemorable acronym “IA/OWTS,” is not cheap for the average homeowner, even with county grant incentives. Homeowners in the South Fork towns, which have bought into the idea of using town Community Preservation Fund money for advanced septic systems, have a financial edge over their neighbors on the North Fork, and can apply for rebates that will usually also cover the cost of engineering drawings and permitting. But homeowners must first outlay a not-insignificant amount of their own cash toward the project. 

North Fork towns, which generate far much less in revenue through the CPF, can be forgiven for continuing to focus primarily on farmland preservation with the use of limited CPF funds. But there needs to be a better way to get these systems in the ground. 

Suffolk County voters will have a chance to vote this November on a ballot referendum measure that would allow the county to set an 1/8 percent sales tax to be used for septic upgrades, with the money being split evenly between being used for IA/OWTS systems and sewers. While this plan has its faults — the onsite systems have proven to be more cost-effective than sewering, and are less likely to lead to more development — the use of the money will be guided by Suffolk County’s well-considered Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which prioritizes areas that serve as watersheds — the source of water — for impaired bodies of surface water. We urge voters to remember, in the midst of this contentious election year, that this measure will be on the ballot, and if you vote, your voice will be heard.

Back bays, by their nature, are less cleansed by the effect of tidal flushing than areas of more open water, and that is why they are such an important priority area. We applaud Southampton Town for its dogged pursuit of a solution to the longstanding septic crisis in Riverside, on the south bank of the Peconic River, home to several mobile home parks that will be the first to be hooked up to the new Riverside Sewer District approved by Southampton Town on April 23. This sewer district will also help with economic revitalization, which this community has been longing for, for decades.

The health of the river dramatically affects the health of Flanders Bay, Reeves Bay, Meetinghouse Creek and Terry Creek, all of which have suffered from harmful algal blooms in recent years.

We’re saddened to see that Riverhead Town is considering legal action over Southampton’s decision. There are better ways to address Riverhead’s concerns about the redevelopment of Riverside leading to more kids in Riverhead schools, or their wish to unload the County Center and Suffolk County Correctional Facility from their own sewage treatment plant.

Riverhead Town has had the better part of a decade to weigh in on the redevelopment of Riverside, and the time for Riverhead to make its position known was 10 years ago, before the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan was adopted. The residents and businesses in downtown Riverhead are already hooked up to a sewage treatment plant that is preventing contaminants from entering the bays from their side of the river. To deny the same to people who live across the river, who have also been working for decades to make their home a better place, is not a just solution.

East End Beacon
The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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