Mayors, supervisors ask Cuomo for $100M for septic systems

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

The issue of antiquated or failing septic systems compromising the quality of the East End’s ground and surface waters is once again taking center stage as the region presses for help from Albany to deal with polluted waters. 

Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who is also chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, sent a formal request to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of the New York State Legislature to spend $100 million to subsidize the installation of state-of-the art septic systems at private homes.

The leaders of the five East End towns are seeking state rebates of about $5,000 for individual homeowners who install the new septic systems. If the state acts on the rebate program, it’s estimated that a quarter of the East End’s 81,000 systems could be improved.

Shelter Island town engineer John Cronin characterized the situation as so bad it would “only get worse without some radical changes.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said that because Suffolk County has not addressed the matter in a meaningful way, and since a sweeping water quality bill stalled in the Legislature last year, funding from Albany is needed to give local municipalities more power to introduce modern septic systems to their own towns.

“[The association is] looking to give towns greater flexibility on addressing an issue that we all recognize as a crisis,” Mr. Russell said. “We are trying to get the ability at the local level to start introducing new alternative treatment systems.”

While Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter didn’t attend the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association meeting in which the decision to send the letter was made, he said Tuesday that he supports a rebate program for residents.

“There is only one way this is going to happen and it’s through a grant program,” Mr. Walter said. “If the government doesn’t pay for it, the problem is not going to be fixed.”

The problem is dangerous pollutants, including nitrogen, that are not being controlled due to antiquated or faulty septic systems that poison drinking water and flow freely into surrounding surface waters such as ponds, creeks and bays.

Just one example of an approaching crisis in water quality was the release last spring of a federally funded study by The Nature Conservancy on regional sea grass health. The study concluded that nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers is a major factor in “killing off sea grass populations throughout the coastal waters of southern New England and New York.”

Recently, Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) called for using a small portion of the Community Preservation Fund — a 2 percent tax on real estate deals that funds open space acquisitions — to improve water quality on the East End. His proposal met with strong local opposition, but Mr. Thiele has said the idea is still in play.

In addition to the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association’s plan for spending $100 million in state funds, the proposal also calls for “an additional $3 million in the enacted Fiscal Year 2015-2016 New York Sate Budget for the creation of a Long Island nitrogen management and mitigation plan, as well as an additional $2 million for the creation of science-based numeric nitrogen standards.”

According to the association, nitrogen standards will ensure that state, county and local governments are dealing with the same facts and figures.

“The longer we wait,” the funding proposal to the state reads, “the more expensive remediation will prove to be, if it can be accomplished at all.”

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With Cyndi Murray