Guest Column: Leadership needed to save our waters

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | A portion of Mattituck Inlet which was closed due to a biotoxin detected in the water.

Our drinking water and our surface waters, our creeks and estuaries are in decline — and have been for a long time. We know this. We know a major culprit is nitrogen. We know a major source of nitrogen in both groundwater and surface waters is human waste. So really, we are the culprits.

On April 5 The Suffolk Times reported the closure of Mattituck Inlet to shellfishing due to the presence of saxitoxin, a serious neurotoxin that, if ingested, can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, which can be fatal. The problem is not exclusive to the North Fork, as shellfish beds were closed in Sag Harbor Cove for the same reason.

We need to connect the dots. Saxitoxin is produced by a type of algae and algae blooms are exacerbated by too much nitrogen. Nitrogen migrates from our cesspools into the groundwater and, eventually, into creeks and estuaries. More development means more cesspools and, thus, more waste and more nitrogen.

Additionally, the overgrowth of algae blocks sunlight to aquatic plants, including eelgrass, which serves as the nursery for many marine species. When algae decompose, oxygen is depleted, further threatening these nascent creatures. This process contributed to the brown tide outbreaks in the 1980s that devastated the scallop population.

But there is hope. New technology and good planning can help abate excessive nitrogen in our waters. We just need the political will to make it happen.

On May 22 a group of environmentalists, including Peconic baykeeper Kevin McAllister and Bob DeLuca from Group for the East End, met with the Southold Town Board and sounded the alarm. They reported the dire findings of a recent study by Suffolk County Department of Health Services. Although the study identified the problems, it offered few solutions.

The meeting followed a larger event several weeks earlier at which environmentalists from across Long Island warned that bold steps need to be taken by all levels of government to protect the county’s water resources.

Suffolk County has approved the use of innovative new sanitary systems that effectively remove the bulk of the nitrogen from wastewater — at least to levels consistent with a healthy marine environment — but failed to mandate their use. These systems can be used for individual homes, businesses and clustered developments.

Cleaning up and protecting our resources may cost more initially, but is really an investment in our future and will save money in the long term.

We are at a precipice and the situation is critical. All of us have to do our part and ask ourselves, “What do we value?” Hopefully, one answer will be safe, potable drinking water and viable, clean creeks and estuaries.

This is an opportunity for the Southold Town Board to show real leadership, courage and vision by adopting more progressive laws than those currently in place at the county level.

We need to incorporate policies into our comprehensive plan that truly protect our water, whether it’s the water we drink or the waters that we swim and fish in.

Ms. Schroeder is a veteran environmental advocate and activist who lives in Cutchogue.