Suffolk Seeks Dramatic Changes for Septic Waste

Suffolk County is holding two public hearings this September on an aggressive $4 billion plan to upgrade septic systems to reduce nitrogen overload in our waterways.

The plan is aimed at transitioning away from traditional cesspools and septic systems by either replacing them with innovative or alternative wastewater systems, or by connecting buildings to existing and expanded sewer districts. 

Out-of-date cesspools have been identified as the main contributor of nitrogen pollution to ground and surface waters, leading to harmful algae blooms and fish kills.

This wastewater plan was a primary recommendation of two studies — the Smarter Cities Challenge report, prepared by a team of experts from IBM in 2014, and the Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, completed in 2015. 

“This plan represents the first meaningful strategy to address legacy septic nitrogen pollution since countywide sewering objectives were abandoned some four decades ago,” says Walter Dawydiak, director of environmental quality for Suffolk County.

Suffolk County is holding two public hearings on the draft Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan on Thursday, Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Suffolk County Riverhead Legislative Auditorium, 300 Center Drive in Riverhead, and on Friday, Sept. 6  at 3 p.m. at the Suffolk County Community College Brentwood Campus’s Health, Sports & Education Center Lecture Hall on Crooked Hill Road in Brentwood.

The plan maps out 190 specific subwatershed areas in the county, and proposes nitrogen reduction goals in each of those areas. It also would mandate the use of new nitrogen-reducing septic systems in new construction by 2020. The plan also recommends a requirement that septic systems be upgraded when properties change hands.

The plan, which would mandate wastewater system upgrades beginning with the most high priority areas, would be implemented in four phases over the next 50 years, but officials believe it could begin improving the county’s worsening water quality trends in as soon as 10 years.

The implementation of the plan “would require establishment of a stable and recurring revenue source to provide a funding mechanism to offset the costs of wastewater upgrades to property owners and would require legislative actions by the Suffolk County Legislature.” 

The plan cites the Bay Restoration Fee implemented by the State of Maryland to fund upgrades, and a fee on water consumption implemented in Spokane, Washington as examples of potential funding sources.

The plan calls for 10,000 upgrades or sewer connections (the sewer connections would be along the South Shore) in the first phase, which lasts from now to 2023, followed by a second, 30-year-long phase in which upgrades would be mandated in near-shore areas where groundwater travels to surface waters in zero to two years. 

Projects in Phase 1 would be paid for through existing grant sources, including $440 million in federal and state funding that the county has been awarded by New York State, plus an anticipated $95 million in grants to upgrade antiquated septic systems. 

During the second phase, which would begin in about five years but would last for the following 30 years, it estimates that 177,000 septic systems would be retrofit to reduce nitrogen, while 30,000 new systems would be installed for new construction. The second phase is expected to cost about $1.9 billon.

Phase 3 and 4 focus on lower priority areas, where groundwater takes longer to reach the bays.

“One critically important aspect of the plan is the economic opportunity and new jobs that will continue to be created, both in the rapidly developing industry of trained and certified technicians required to install and maintain the new nitrogen reducing systems, and in connecting thousands of additional parcels to sewers,” said Deputy County Executive Peter A. Scully. “Over the past several years, the county has worked cooperatively with the liquid waste industry to establish licensing requirements and to provide the training needed to install the new systems. Right now, the industry can support the installation of about 1,000 systems per year, but the capacity of the industry will continue to grow as more local small businesses are created to meet market demands.”

“The strength of this plan is the incredibly strong and sound science on which it is based,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler, Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. He is also the director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University. “The county has taken what may be the largest and most comprehensive water quality data set generated by any county in the country and has generated a robust, comprehensive, and forward thinking plan to restore Suffolk County’s most vital resource: its drinking water and surface waters. While I have spent my career documenting the degradation of Long Island’s fisheries and aquatic habitats, it is inspiring to finally see a plan designed and implemented that will reverse course on decades of negative trajectories. The citizens of Suffolk County will reap the benefits of this plan for decades to come.”

More details are online at reclaimourwater.info.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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