Local Focus: Water Quality on Long Island

By Peter Aronson

Long Island, particularly Suffolk County, has a serious drinking-water problem, and the New York League of Conservation Voters is urging local government leaders to take action to help remedy the problem.

Long Island gets its drinking water from a single source underground aquifer. Groundwater filtrates into the aquifer, often carrying pollutants that exceed EPA standards.

“Every drop entering Long Island’s groundwater aquifers flows to either a drinking water well or to the nearest stream, lake, bay, or harbor,” The Nature Conservancy stated in an  article. “In much of Suffolk County and northern Nassau County increasing nitrate levels in the aquifers and surface waters can be traced to cesspools and septic systems, with additional contributions from fertilizers and air pollution.”

According to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), more than 600,000 Long Islanders drink water that exceeds the EPA’s PFAS chemical standards. PFAS are highly toxic chemicals found in many things we use regularly, such as cleaning and personal care products and are found in nonstick products, waterproofing and firefighting foams. 

“Exposure has been linked to cancers, immunity, fertility and learning problems,” according to a CCE article. “The EPA advised new limits far lower than what New York allows.”

Recently, the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and Roux Associates hosted a panel discussion at the Southampton Arts Center to raise awareness about the issue. The panel, which was moderated by NYLCV President Julie Tighe, included Southampton Mayor Jesse Warren, Surfrider’s Jenna Schwerzmann, and Roux VP Charlie McGuckin. You can watch it in its entirety here. 

“Clean water has been a long time priority for the League,” said Tighe. “We believe it is our most precious resource and a fundamental right, and it’s an issue of critical importance for Long island, and Suffolk County in particular, and that is why we are here tonight.”

Tighe said that it’s estimated 360,000 homes and 11,800 commercial properties in Suffolk County rely on conventional cesspools and septic systems. She urged the county to take the important steps to transition to newer and cleaner septic options or sewers.

“It is critical that homes and businesses transition from conventional septic systems to the new advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems, known as innovative/alternate systems, or I/A systems for short,” Tighe explained. 

There’s substantial funds available through New York’s $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act, with $650 million earmarked statewide for water quality improvement and related infrastructure improvements.

“The really good news for Suffolk County is that the biggest tranche of money available from that is for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,” Tighe said.

New York State has authorized Suffolk County to set up a county-wide wastewater management district. This would allow the county to consolidate 27 sewer districts into one district, allowing for more efficient management and more accurate testing. In addition, the state authorized a county-wide referendum to increase the county’s sales tax to fund a water-quality restoration fund. Generating $3.1 billion from 2024 to 2060, the funds could be used to protect and rehabilitate groundwater, construct new sewage treatment infrastructure and replace polluting septic systems. Now, the Suffolk County Legislature needs to put these measures on the ballot so voters can decide if they want clean water.

Tighe said the state legislature must take the following steps:

  • Adopt a resolution putting the sales tax increase on the ballot in the November election;
  • Pass a law to establish a new wastewater management district;
  • Authorize this district to collect funds for the water projects; and
  • Create a 17-member wastewater management district board of trustees.

The Suffolk County Legislature is hosting a public comments hearing on the ballot measure on June 21. We urge all Suffolk County residents to join us to rally and give public comments to help make sure this important referendum makes the ballot.