Editorial: State needs to step in to clean up Peconic Estuary

Words such as “crisis” and “urgent” often lose their currency when public officials spend them as freely as sailors on sprees.

But credit Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty — chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association — for pursuing an end to a fully realized crisis confronting the region’s future in the form of polluted groundwater and the waters that surround us

A major cause of this, yes, urgent situation is septic systems that don’t adequately filter nitrogen and other toxic chemicals from waste, allowing it to eventually seep into our drinking water and our bays and creeks. In many parts of the Peconic Estuary, according to a report from The Nature Conservancy, septic systems were found to be the single largest source of nitrogen pollution.

Mr. Dougherty, representing all East End towns and villages, has called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders of the state Legislature to institute a $100 million program that would provide individual homeowners with rebates for upgrading failing septic systems.

If that money is forthcoming, it’s estimated that 25 percent of all the ineffective septic systems on the East End could be upgraded to provide protection against a poisonous future. This is both progressive thinking and a practical, workable plan to reduce pollution.

Funding has been one major sticking point with any legislation aimed at protecting the region’s groundwater. It wouldn’t be right for Albany to suddenly mandate that homeowners spend money they likely don’t have to invest in what’s still fledgling technology. It’s also not feasible to mandate that purchasers of existing homes near the water upgrade waste systems, as such a law would devalue properties for their current owners. This challenge will require government investment, but town or county governments alone cannot be burdened with such a responsibility. The cost is too high.

A report released just this month by the Long Island Association, a business advocacy group, found that in 2013, Nassau and Suffolk taxpayers sent the state and federal governments about $28 billion more in taxes than it received back in funding and services.

Though a gap is to be expected — we are among the wealthier parts of the state — it should be reduced, and not just for the benefit of people living on Long Island. Environmental concerns aside, it’s in the long-term best interest of the state and federal governments to protect its cash cow here.

There’s no better place to start than investing in clean water, lest Long Island lose its current high level of desirability as a place to live and visit.