Amper: Expand preservation fund to tackle water quality

Waterfront homes in Jamesport along the bay. (Credit: Barbarellen Koch, file.)
Waterfront homes in Jamesport along the bay. (Credit: Barbarellen Koch, file.)

On April 2, East Enders will celebrate an important milestone: The Community Preservation Fund will have generated over $1 billion and preserved more than 10,000 acres of open space and farmland. Approved by voters in 1999, the CPF uses a small tax on real estate purchases to preserve land and protect drinking water.

It is arguably the most successful land preservation program in the country.

Now, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele has an excellent idea to extend and expand the East End’s Community Preservation Fund to further improve water quality. As the quality of drinking and surface water declines, why not use some of the money for water treatment systems and other water quality improvement programs?

One of the best reasons to preserve open space is to protect the clean water that lies below it. Long Islanders have protected some 50,000 acres of Pine Barrens, and the water beneath them is the most pristine in the region. By extending the CPF from 2020 to 2050, we’ll still be able to buy more land than originally anticipated, in addition to protecting groundwater.

Second, declining water quality is the island’s No. 1 problem. It is caused by excess nitrogen from sewage and fertilizers. We need to reduce nitrogen discharge to groundwater for the sake of both drinking and surface waters. On the East End, individual cesspools and septic systems substitute for sewer systems. Extension of sewer lines out the North and South forks would invite the kind of over-development that has already compromised up-island communities. And most of the nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers comes from the North Fork. So improving wastewater treatment is a top priority here.

Third, the economic, environmental and public health impacts of declining water quality affect the East End more than any other part of Long Island.  Our tourism and second-home economy are economically undercut by dirty water. Harmful algae blooms including red tide, brown tide, rust tide and others are decimating our shellfish, marsh grass and eel grass beds and beach closings are on the rise. The East End is best known for its quality of life and excess sewage and other contaminant discharge is antithetical to that quality.

Mr. Thiele’s proposed amendment would permit 20 percent of CPF funds to be directed to water quality improvement in addition to the preservation of open space and farmland. And I have an even better idea. I suggest that half of the new 20 percent for clean water in the CPF (10 percent) should be targeted for regional water cleanup, regardless of where the CPF funds are generated. The North Fork towns generate far less money than the South Fork towns, which up to now have jealously guarded those funds for local preservation. But we all know that we can’t clean up only the south half of Peconic Bay, and that pollution in one town doesn’t know to stop at the town line.

So in the interest of cleaning up water across the East End, we need to focus on regional water quality improvement instead of strictly local spending — at least with a small portion of the amended CPF.

The wild success of the CPF should be harnessed to take on the huge challenge of improved water quality, even as it continues to preserve open space and farmland.

And it should be focused on both the North and South forks.TR_Guest_Amper Head Shot 72 DPI

Mr. Amper is executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental education and advocacy organization.