The Suffolk County Legislature has approved a $10 million grant program to help homeowners pay for new septic systems as part of an effort to combat nitrogen levels in the water. In addition, the four new positions will be created at the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to administer the program. Homeowners who earn less than $300,000 a year can apply for grants up to $11,000. This will help about 400 homeowners to convert their old cesspools into new state-of-the-art septic systems. Priority will be given to homes with nitrogen overload issues.
Though naturally occurring, nitrogen can have many harmful effects in overabundance. A failure in the infrastructure can allow them to seep into aquifers, threatening local inhabitants’ drinking water. Nitrates and other wastewater chemicals, such as phosphorous, can have particularly devastating effects on infants and the elderly if ingested above the contaminant level.
Nitrates also harm the ecosystem of the local water, and environmental experts have indicated improper nitrogen levels in the die-off of fish in the North Fork’s creeks and bays. An overabundance of nitrogen in water causes algal blooms, which decreases the amount of oxygen, thus impacting fish, eelgrass and habitats, and causing to erosion. Since 2000, nitrogen overload has depleted North Fork’s eelgrass by half. Resultant algal blooms have wiped out 99 percent of the South Shore’s shellfish industry.
This is just the latest measure to address the nitrogen crisis in Long Island’s waterways. Two months ago, $75 million in rebates for homeowners to replace septic systems and $110 million to protect watersheds was included in the $2.5 billion allocated toward clean water in the state budget. Additionally, voters in the five East End towns decided to extend the Community Preservation Fund for an additional years and allow up to 20% of the funds it raises to go toward water infrastructure.
With uncertainty over federal funding for clean water, this is just another example of state and local governments taking matters into their own hands to protect their environment and the people who lives in these communities.
The challenge of protecting water quality in the long term still remains, however, despite these efforts. Though Nassau has many water quality issues of its own, it has invested far more in wastewater treatment than Suffolk and investing in new sewers systems on developed lands can be prohibitively expensive. For example, one proposed project to cover 8,200 parcels in Suffolk is estimated to cost $383 million.
Officials have focused on septic replacement as a far more cost-effective short-term fix until large sums of money are available for sewer infrastructure. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, among others, hope this program to help 400 homeowners a year can eventually be expanded to 5,000. Eventually, Suffolk will need to come up with a new revenue stream to finance this expansion. Though more progress has been made in the past few years than the prior few decades, there is still a great deal of work to be done and hard decisions to be made.