In the wake of three major fish kills, dead turtles likely poisoned by red tide algae washing up along the shores of Flanders Bay and worsening news about harmful algae blooms in Long Island bays, the New York League of Conservation Voters held a conference Tuesday morning at Stony Brook University to discuss just what can be done to solve the crisis.
Wastewater engineers, scientists and public officials in the room agreed that one of the major sources of the algae blooms, which lead to the fish kills, is high levels of the nutrient nitrogen leaching into our surface waters.
But the problem, which stems to a great degree from the urea leaching from individual septic systems along the shores of our water bodies, is an expensive and technically difficult one to fix.
A panel of engineers discussed the technical aspects of new sewage systems, while a panel of policy makers discussed the public policy measures that could make the technology affordable in the conference at Stony Brook’s Wang Center.
“The elephant in the room is us,” said Walter Dawydiak, the chief engineer of the Suffolk County Health Department, at Tuesday’s conference. “Nobody has tackled the problem of preexisting legacy septic systems.”
Mr. Dawydiak added that, with 360,000 individual septic systems in Suffolk County, 210,000 of them in environmentally sensitive areas, there is no other place in the country that has more people using individual septic systems above their sole source of drinking water and near a such a critical estuary system.
“There are 40,000 parcels with septic tanks that are not functioning properly. In a matter of decades, that’s going to double,” he added. “This is a mammoth challenge. It shows no sign of letting up.”
Advanced septic system vendors are about to install 19 individual upgraded septic systems as pilot projects throughout the county, he said, in the hopes that the county will approve a number of those systems for the general public to use by the end of 2016.
But the cost of the systems, as much as $30,000 for an individual homeowner, is extreme, and little incentive currently exists for homeowners to install the upgraded systems.
Harold Walker, Professor for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University, estimated the cost of installing on-site upgraded septic systems throughout the county at $6 billion.
“The price point needed for significant adoption [by homeowners] is extremely low,” he said. “What price point is it going to take to get these systems in the ground? There’s gotta be a package of more affordable technologies that allows for greater policy options.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, Suffolk County Planning Commission Co-Chaire David Calone and Suffolk County Sustainability Director Dorian Dale tackled the issue of funding.
Among funding options on the table are doubling the county’s 1/4 percent water quality sales tax, allowing 20 percent of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund money to be used for water-quality related projects, bonding and what’s known as tax-increment financing — phasing in environmental taxes on new development.
The panel members said they believe solving this current crisis could end up financially benefiting Long Island.
“We have a history of creating revenue out of crisis,” said Ms. Throne-Holst, adding that a center here dedicated to clean water planning could provide assistance in other areas that are also facing water quality issues.
“We have an exciting opportunity on Long Island to solve what is uniquely a Long Island problem,” said Mr. Calone. “We could export this technology around the country and the world.”
Mr. Calone said it’s important that these initiatives are not financed by taxing homeowners who “already pay the highest taxes in the country.”
Last year, IBM’s Smart Cities program financed a study on Suffolk County’s water issues.
The integration of the Suffolk County Water Authority with a sewer authority was among their recommendations, though it would take a revision of the water authority’s state charter in order to add sewers to their work.
If the SCWA’s role was expanded, the panelists said, it would be responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of the 175 sewer systems, plus any more that are built, throughout the county.
Mr. Dale said that if SCWA’s role was expanded, the cost would be borne by all of the water authority’s ratepayers in the county, making the cost far more bearable.
Ms. Throne-Holst cautioned that, among her constituents, there’s concern that better technology will spur more development, negating progress on environmental goals.
“Planning has to be very carefully done. We can’t repeat mistakes, and it has to be regionally appropriate,” she said.
Mr. Colone said that he expects the projects to take a long time — on the scale of decades — but he believes the most important thing is that the public is involved in shaping policy.
“Conventionally big projects can take nine years,” said Mr. Dale. “But I don’t think anybody’s gonna have time for the shenanigans of the past.
Many panalists said the issues being addressed will only be compounded by a changing climate and sea level rise.
“The separation distance to groundwater [from septic systems] is really important. It’s not going to be there in 20 to 30 years,” said Mr. Dawydiak. “Changing those separations is also on the table.”