Riverhead Town could be among the first municipalities in Suffolk County to take a proactive step in dealing with nitrogen pollution from wastewater, which is wreaking havoc on Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound waters.
The Riverhead Town Board is weighing a building code amendment that would strengthen requirements for septic system upgrades on certain home renovations beyond what is currently mandated by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.
If passed, the change would require homeowners located within wetlands, beach, dune and bluff areas to upgrade septic systems when a renovation or home expansion is being completed, especially when it will impact wastewater flow.
Currently, the county requires a septic system upgrade only if a single or two family residence is being expanded to four bedrooms, Deputy Town Attorney Ann Marie Prudenti explained during an Oct. 2 town work session.
Upgrades would only be required to meet “current” health department standards, which do not yet mandate advanced denitrification systems that can carry a hefty price tag.
The county health department is currently testing such advanced systems, looking for one that is suitable for single home use that could — and likely will — become the standard requirement in the future, according to environmental advocates.
Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who proposed the change, said the goal is to improve sanitary systems, particularly outdated cesspools, to a more advanced option such as a septic tank system, which includes what’s called a “leeching field” that allows more time for nitrogen to break down in wastewater before that water enters nearby groundwater, according to the not-for-profit Marine Biological Laboratory research center in Massachusetts.
Some area cesspools have been in the ground since before 1971, when the county first began regulating sanitary systems, Ms. Giglio said.
“It is important that we protect our water bodies, fisheries, lobsters and aquaculture from nitrates [nitrogen] directly flowing into the estuary,” she said. “I don’t want to waste time. It will improve our water quality and it is something that has needed to be done for a long time.”
According to Marine Biological Laboratory researchers, houses within 200 meters of the shoreline contribute more nitrogen to local estuaries, as wastewater has a shorter distance to travel before entering groundwater, limiting the natural nitrogen removal processes, which is why local coastal areas are being targeted.
Joe Hall, an environmental planner for the town, said the high concentration of homes near the water is probably the biggest cause of nitrogen pollution entering the Peconic Estuary, noting that a large portion of property within the town falls within the coastal areas discussed.
The need for change was sparked when a Jamesport homeowner was “practically rebuilding his home,” yet not required to update his outdated cesspool, Ms. Giglio said.
“Witnessing it first hand, what’s wrong with government [requirements], I took the first steps to improve our environmental water quality for all of the residents,” she said. “It may not be popular, this legislation, [but] as a legislator it is my responsibility to take action.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he supports the proposal, but is concerned it could allow the town building department to require homeowners to install a advanced denitrification system when one is approved down the road.
Ms. Giglio said she isn’t proposing the town “go to the fullest extent” and require denitrification systems — just yet.
“What I’m proposing now is an improvement on the current situation,” she said. “But if the Suffolk County Department of Health Services was to go forward and make those denitrification systems the new standard county requirement, my legislation would account for that.”
Water quality advocate Kevin McAllister said the proposed amendment would “simply bring systems up to the standard Suffolk County code, but the county code itself is deficient.
“The councilwoman’s proposal, it’s not cutting edge legislation,” he added. “It will just end up embroiling us in these baby steps. If we’re really going to be serious about addressing nitrogen we have to require denitrification upgrades.”
He noted that “baby steps” could end up costing Long Island homeowners more in the long run, as denitrification systems will inevitably become necessary to solve water quality issues in areas where sewering is not viable.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said he is “encouraged that local government is finding it necessary to have more restrictive regulations in sensitive watershed areas — even more so than the county [health department].”
Riverhead Town is one of several area municipalities weighing regulatory action in an attempt to improve area water quality. Brookhaven Town officials are drafting regulations aimed at limiting the amount of nitrogen a home can discharge in the area near the Carmans River.
Southampton Town officials last April created a rebate incentive program to help area homeowners upgrade or repair outdated systems to meet the current county health department requirements, though the amount of funding secured for the initiative has already been extinguished.
Riverhead Town officials are expected to discuss the amendment further before releasing a final draft of the proposal. Ms. Giglio said she hopes to publish the proposed legislation by the end of October and announce a public hearing for mid-November.