10.3.11 – Suffolk County Legislative Hearing on Water Quality

A recent report prepared by the Suffolk County Department of Health on water quality identified significant changes in the levels of Nitrogen and other contaminants in Suffolk County’s groundwater.   A legislative hearing was convened by Suffolk County legislators to discuss these finding.  What was heard there was eye opening, and has important implications for the future of Long Island.  Among those testifying to the legislature were Peter Scully, the Regional Director of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Walter Dawydiak, The Acting Commissioner of Health Services for Suffolk County, Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Dick Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stonybrook University.  Considering the importance of the subject, I was surprised at the lack of press coverage of this hearing.

Speakers agreed that there have been impacts to the quality of water in Long Island’s aquifers and bays. The drinking water supply is fundamentally safe, but more must be done to safeguard water supplies and protect surface water, groundwater and the water in our harbors and bay.   There was an agreement that water needs greater protection, and that there needs to be some form of island wide entity charged with that mission.  Drinking water, surface water and the water in our harbors and bays must be managed holistically, not separately.

According to the Suffolk County Draft Comprehensive Water Wanagement Plan, water quality in protected areas is of high quality.  Open space preservation is a necessity, not an option.  According to a statement released by Citizens Campaign for the Environment, “we depend on healthy rivers, estuaries, and bays for tourism, recreation and a healthy economy.  The Long Island Sound generates $8.5 billion annually to our regional economy…In a recent study, Long Island’s parks and protected open space are key economic drivers that contribute at least $2.74 billion in annual benefit.”

Among the findings of the report are that levels of pesticide contamination, volatile organic chemicals,(VOCs) nitrogen and pharmaceutical products (including medications and personal care products) have all risen dramatically.   Dr. Gobler addressed the nitrogen issue in his statement.  “From 1987 to 2005, nitrogen concentrations in the Upper Glacier aquifer rose from 3.12 milligrams (mg) per Liter (L) to 4.34 mg/L while levels in the Magothy aquifer rose from 1.14 mg/L to 3.43 mg/L, increases of 40 and 200% respectively.  These are large changes for such a brief period of time (18 years) and the trend in the Magothy is particularly surprising as the deeper Magothy aquifer, once considered safe from human contamination now contains more nitrogen than the Upper Glacier aquifer did only 18 years ago.”    He went on to state that evidence indicates that the nitrogen comes from cesspools or septic  tanks.  Suffolk County’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan has generated models that predict the amount of nitrogen in groundwater, and that by 2050, the groundwater in Suffolk County may be “unfit for human consumption.”

The groundwater in a newly developed region can take up to three decades to discharge into coastal waters.  Dr. Gobler went on to say that “groundwater contaminated by the population boom that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century in Suffolk Coiunty is only now reaching our coastal ecosystems.  As such, it is important to realize that decisions made today regarding development in Suffolk County will be felt by the next generation of residents, just as decisions made by the last generation is now impacting our coastal waters.”

I will be addressing the other issues raised, VOCs, pesticides and pharmaceuticals in a further column.  Suffice it to say, that the preservation and protection of Long Island’s water is an urgent matter that must be on the frontline of any large development proposal.   To my knowledge, Nassau County has no plans to conduct an assessment of our water supplies similar to Suffolk’s, which is disappointing.  However, water knows no boundaries, and it is probably safe to say that in areas that are not sewered in Nassau, the water is similarly impacted.

More has to be done to protect our water – whether by constructing sewers, upgrading sewage treatment plants, increasing pharmaceutical take back programs, reducing or banning the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and providing greater knowledge and awareness to the public – the time has come when this has to be a priority.