Editorial: Will funding for Peconic Estuary Program end this year?

What makes the North Fork unique is its farmland, salt creeks and Peconic Bay. They draw people here and keep them here. From the point where the Peconic River enters the bay in Riverhead all the way east to Gardiners Bay, this stunning body of salt water is magic.

That anywhere on the East Coast there are still farms that run to saltwater, as there are on the North Fork, is testament to generations of people here who refused to sit idly by and watch it all disappear.

In May, The Suffolk Times interviewed Nick Krupski, who had become the fifth generation to manage his family’s Peconic farm. He took it over from his father, Al Krupski. In summing up his desire to be on the farm, Nick said: “Between the farm and the salt water, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Those words have been said by many here, and they are a reminder of the importance of both farms and salt water, but also the fragility of the latter. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Peconic Bay’s designation as a federally recognized estuary. That designation came in the wake of several years of a destructive brown tide, which first appeared in the bays in 1985. The tide turned the deep blue color of the bay into something that resembled coffee. It was an ugly sight. The brown tide essentially choked the bay, decimating its world-famous scallop crop and shocking a region into action.

The estuary designation prevented threats to the bay from worsening, and most concede there is still a great deal of work to be done as regards runoff and the slow, destructive flow of nitrogen into groundwater from antiquated septic systems at thousands of North Fork homes. Suffolk County is trying to deal with that issue by offering homeowners financial incentives to install modern new systems that keep nitrogen from seeping into groundwater.

Congress established the National Estuary Program in 1987, with Long Island Sound part of the original effort. The western part of the Sound has long been threatened, and in recent years many environmentalists have also feared for the well-being of the eastern Sound. Local activists and members of the Suffolk County Legislature — Greg Blass, Tony Bullock and Fred Thiele among them — pushed to have Peconic Bay included in the estuary program. When it happened 25 years ago, Peconic Bay became the 18th estuary system in the nation to be added to the program. Federal funds to the region soon followed.

Since then critical upgrades have been made at the Riverhead Town sewage treatment plant, which reduced nitrogen flow into the western part of the bay. But, as sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel said in an interview, this was the “low-hanging fruit” of the problem, the easiest part to address. This further illustrates how much more has to be done to remove nitrogen from the bay.

While budget fights in Congress are routine, this year’s federal budget, as envisioned by the White House, does not include any funding for the National Estuary Program for fiscal year 2018. Last year, Congress authorized $26.5 million for the program, with individual programs receiving about $600,000. To proponents of our bay, a budget proposal with nothing at all for the estuary program is more than troubling.

“This year, things are pretty tenuous,” said Alison Branco, director of the Peconic Estuary Program, adding that “this is a scary time for us.”

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) knows the value of the program and said he feels confident there will be funding. “It’s an issue that transcends partisan politics,” he said.

He is right about that.