04/13/14 6:00am
04/13/2014 6:00 AM
A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

I must admit I was surprised at Bill Toedter’s response to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s commitment to address the damage to the quality of our waters that excess nutrient loading is causing. It is a complex issue and we should be glad to have a politician brave enough to take action.  (more…)

04/12/14 7:00am
04/12/2014 7:00 AM
A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) for nitrogen reduction are being investigated for use in Suffolk County, and while they may have utility in some cases, they are not a panacea to our individual wastewater treatment issues.

Here are some facts that one should consider before installing such a system.  (more…)

03/19/14 12:12pm
03/19/2014 12:12 PM

Kevin McAllister is no longer with Peconic Baykeeper after more than 15 years. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

The nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper organization, charged with safeguarding East End waterways, has lost its lead watchdog, an agency spokeswoman confirmed. Kevin McAllister, who served as president of the group for more than 15 years, is no longer affiliated with the organization.  (more…)

02/23/14 7:01am
02/23/2014 7:01 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay earlier this year. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Protecting our surface and ground water is Long Island’s public issue number one. The Long Island Clean Water Partnership has done a great job in increasing public and political awareness. But we must avoid the trap of oversimplifying both the problem and the solutions.

Any campaign has three elements: awareness, education and action. Awareness has been raised. Now the hard work, education, has to begin. Education involves inclusive public discussion, scientific debate and a broad coalition on how best to move forward.

Today, everything’s a 10-second sound bite. However, using sound bites to explain proposed solutions can be harmful to long-term success. For example, in County Executive Steve Bellone’s recent public talks on the water issue, he and others read from the same script we’ve heard over and over again. We deserve more than that. We need more than that.

We need full information to make informed decisions.

Take Mr. Bellone’s main proposal to solve our water problems: prioritize areas with failing septic systems, identify those near existing sewer systems and extend the sewers to those properties. Interesting concept until you look a little deeper.

Now putting priority properties, especially waterfront lots, onto a municipal sewer system will remove nitrogen from septic systems and from leeching into our waters. This is good. But think about this a little more. In Long Island’s history, when you extend sewer systems, high-density residential and commercial development follows. Always has. Always will. So what problems do extended sewer systems and more development add to our current water problems?

Many.

First problem is the sewers themselves. Septic systems work by seeping wastewater back into the ground. As the water moves through the soil, it filters out and reduces the concentration of nitrogen and other elements. In areas of high density — too many homes and people on too little land — the ground becomes over-saturated with septic output, thus the filtering of nitrogen and other elements is impaired. Sewers solve that problem, to some degree.

Most of Long Island’s municipal sewage treatment plants, and the smaller community systems which feed into them, take wastewater from the sewers, treat it and pump the resulting effluent into the Sound, bays or the ocean. While this prevents nitrogen from entering the ground, it also means all of that sewered water is removed from the recharge cycle. In other words, instead of returning a large portion of the water we use back to the water table and deeper aquifers, it’s diverted to our surrounding bodies of salt water.

So, increased sewering reduces the amount of water we put back into our groundwater supplies. And near the waterfront, if you remove too much water you lower the water table, salt water comes in to replace it and your well has to be shut down. This is already happening around the island.

In addition, volume from 100,000-plus homes could add a significant amount of total nitrogen being pumped into our already stressed bays. So sewering could add to our water pollution and declining fisheries woes, not solve them.

Many of Long Island’s sewage treatment plants are near capacity. Many need funding for mandated plant updates. Almost all need to extend their discharge pipelines out of our bays and into the more active waters of the Atlantic Ocean. These updates will cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. So the cost of extended sewering is significant.

And while we talk about funding for our sewer and sewage treatment plant needs, it doesn’t even touch upon the planning, development and cost of individual and community high-tech septic systems needed for the vast majority of those homes and businesses which shouldn’t or can never be sewered. We need answers. You can’t ask voters to support solutions unless you’re ready and able to talk about the costs of each option, as well as the ultimate costs of doing nothing.

But this is only part of the problem with extended sewering. As sewering grows, so does development, and open space, which is needed to clean and return rainwater to the water table and deeper aquifers, becomes paved over. Since 20 percent of nitrogen pollution comes in the form of rain and snow, those open spaces are critical to cleansing and protecting our waters. In addition, with open space paved over, a greater percentage of rainwater is routed to the sewers and the sewage treatment plants. That means even less water is making it down to the aquifers — another matter of sewering adversely affecting both water quality and quantity.

Out east, more sewering and more development take us further away from our cherished rural way of life. Those farms and farm stands, open spaces and rural vistas, the quiet rural roads and quiet sandy beaches are the drivers of both the local economy and the reason many people choose to live here. And once that changeover begins, you cannot go back.

Clean water is a complex problem. Sewering should be part of a comprehensive solution but we need more input from scientists, environmental groups and civic associations in discussions with our elected representatives at all levels. Let’s stop the sound bites and oversimplifying things. Let’s start getting more people with scientific backgrounds to work on this complex problem and its complex solutions.

Communicate that, and then we can make informed decisions on Long Island’s future based on dollars, sense and science.

Bill Toedter, a communications consultant, artist and Southold resident, has been president of the North Fork Environmental Council, an advocacy group, since 2010.

02/20/14 7:00am
02/20/2014 7:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay earlier this year. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Last week, Joe Fischetti rightly identified nitrogen as a significant cause of declining regional water quality, but I disagree with his view that policy efforts should wait until every technical question is resolved, because I doubt it will ever happen.  (more…)

01/30/14 7:00am
01/30/2014 7:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

To the editor:

I remember when platinum-based catalytic converters were first proposed. Comments were split between “it will bankrupt the automakers” and “no one will be able to afford new cars.” (more…)

01/23/14 11:00am
01/23/2014 11:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

Environmentalists rallied in Albany last week to support a bill that would establish and implement a water quality protection plan aimed at reducing nitrogen levels in ground and surface waters across Long Island.

One major component of the legislation would require all septic systems near coastlines or public water sources to be replaced by more high-tech nitrogen-reducing systems. But that part of the bill is generating skepticism tied to a lack of tested technology and to the potential costs for governments and property owners alike.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the legislation, if enacted, could “make the largest contribution to Long Island’s environment of any piece of legislation ever written.”

But it’s still early in the process.

State lawmakers refer to the measure, which is still in committee, as a “study bill,” calling it simply a starting point for discussion.

Read the bill here

Assemblyman Robert Sweeney (D- Lindenhurst) proposed the legislation in August, with state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) proposing a matching bill in the Senate soon after. They caution that the bill needs more work, but both hope to get it passed during this legislative session and said a final draft is expected in April.

The bill aims to curb the amount of nitrogen — which comes from human and animal waste, fertilizers and other sources — reaching area bays and Long Island Sound, feeding algal booms that deprive waters of their oxygen.

It also calls for creation of a Long Island Water Quality Commission that would establish and then oversee implementation of an island-wide water protection plan.

As proposed, the 11-member commission would include two representatives from the governor’s office, one representative each from the Senate and the Assembly, both county executives, one representative from each county legislature and a single member representing all Long Island town and village governments.

It would also include a technical advisory member to represent county health and planning departments and a citizen’s advisory representative such as an environmental or industry advocate. With a protection plan in place, local governments would have to adopt and amend land use, zoning and engineering specifications to adhere to the plan, according to the bill.

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), whose district spans the North Fork, and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter each flagged that component of the proposal as something that wrests zoning control from local officials.

They also said such a commission would direct too much power away from elected leaders.

“It would kind of give the state zoning authority,” Mr. Krupski said. “You need to have elected officials on [the commission] really, being that they are the ones on the front lines making decisions based on someone having elected them to that positions.”

“What they are asking us to do is abdicate our zoning authority, give 100 percent of our zoning authority to what is mostly an unelected group of individuals,” Mr. Walter said. “I could not support the legislation as it is written.”

Mr. Walter said while he is in favor of a plan to improve water quality, he believes affected towns should be broadly represented. That’s the case with the five-member Central Pine Barrens Commission, which includes the supervisors of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton, as well as the county executive.

The water protection plan would affect too many people on Long Island and they need proper representation, he said.

Mr. LaValle, who wrote and sponsored the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, said state officials are taking those concerns into consideration and plan to invite local government officials to the table to voice their concerns.

“My approach is to be inclusive and to make sure that people’s points of view are represented,” Mr. LaValle said. “Everyone can’t get everything they want, but it should represent the stakeholders’ major concerns.”

As for curbing nitrogen flow into water, the bill calls for the removal of existing commercial and residential septic systems, which would be replaced by nitrogen-reducing systems. The mandate would apply to all such “on-site” septic systems within 1,000 feet of a coastline or public supply well.

“We have 17 [public] supply wells in Riverhead and we’re surrounded by water,” Mr. Walter said, “Thousands of homeowners could be impacted.”

Currently, conventional underground on-site septic systems release nitrates into groundwater at a rate of 35 to 50 milligrams per liter, said Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy group working with lawmakers on the bill. The county health department’s standard for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter and, according to Christopher Gobler, marine researcher for Stony Brook University, aquatic life is affected by levels of 0.5 milligrams per liter or higher.

Any new nitrogen-reducing system would have to reduce that output by half, Mr. DeLuca said, keeping in line with the National Sanitary Foundation’s standard, which “speaks to a 50 percent reduction.” The nonprofit foundation develops public health standards that help protect the world’s water; and certifies that emerging de-nitrifying systems and technology meet those specific standards, according to its website.

“It is not a bill that says everybody in Suffolk County has to rip up their backyards and put in a system next week,” said Mr. DeLuca. “There are places where they will need advanced nitrogen treatment and where they will not.”

Mr. DeLuca, Mr. Amper and other environmentalists traveled to Albany last Tuesday hoping to gain support for the bill — which the two state lawmakers stressed could look very different in its final draft, given all the concerns.

Engineering experts argue that the proposed legislation is not in line with available sewage treatment technology, as no de-nitrification system is currently approved by the Suffolk County health department for use on a consumer level.

“There’s no technology to do what they are asking for,” said professional engineer Joseph Fischetti of Southold. “The problem all comes down to individual sub-surface sanitation and there is nothing out here that takes nitrogen out of individual sub-surface sewer systems. So we’re not there yet.”

Mr. DeLuca said health department engineers are currently testing available technology and are in the process of studying at least three systems.

Mr. Fischetti also spoke to the cost of such systems, which he said can range from $10,000 to $30,000 and higher. Such systems, he said, would require long-term maintenance, some seasonally, which would add to those costs.

“This a very complicated problem and they’re going to put legislation out there that’s going to be costing people tens of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Fischetti said. “It affects almost everybody; look at a map and draw a line 1,000 feet from the coast. You have to start talking about how much this is going to cost.”

Mr. Sweeney said the protection plan would incorporate identifiable means of paying for all the septic system upgrades, without putting all of the cost on ratepayers or property owners.

“We recognize it simply isn’t realistic to turn to homeowners and say, ‘This is all your problem and now you have to fix it at your expense,’ I don’t think that could happen, much less that it would happen,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Mr. Krupski, a former member of Southold Town’s Board of Trustees, which is tasked with protecting the town’s water sources, applauded the effort to move forward on improving water quality.

But, he added, the bill as proposed seemed to outline quite an expensive endeavor for no guaranteed payoff.

“Who is going to do the work? And who going to pay for it?” Mr. Krupski asked, adding that nitrogen is not the only factor in water degradation. “Look at everything that goes down the drain. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket and then say nitrogen was just one player with everything going into groundwater.”

“Everybody is interested in how this affects them, that’s natural,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We’re having those discussions and we could end up, who knows, in a very different place down the road from where we are right now on this issue.

“The main point was to get a discussion going and figure out what can reasonably be done,” he said, “and what we need to do to address the issue.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

09/28/13 12:00pm
09/28/2013 12:00 PM
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Coast of the Long Island Sound in Greenport.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Long Island Sound in Greenport.

In celebration of National Estuaries Day today, thousands of people nationwide will be making a “Toast the Coast,” in appreciation and support of keeping the nation’s rivers, bays and estuaries healthy.

The Peconic Estuary Program (PEP) is asking Long Islanders to join the 25th annual celebration by toasting the coast, and taking a photograph (preferably with the bay in the background) of their toast. Social media hash-tags #ToastTheCoast and #PeconicEstuaryProgram were started on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get word out about the celebration.

There’s also a photo contest on the Peconic Estuary Program’s Facebook page. The photo with the most likes by Monday will win a prize, program officials said.

“The toast is a nationwide show of support for protecting and restoring the estuaries and coastal areas that provide us and the environment with invaluable benefits,” said Alison Branco, director of the program. “Whether you are raising a glass of fresh water straight from your kitchen tap, or a glass of beer from one of Long Island’s many microbreweries, if it was made on Long Island it relies on keeping our water resources clean and healthy.”

cmiller@timesreview.com