Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has
Cesspool. Cesspool. Cesspool.
That’s the essential link to understanding Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to impose an annual fee on water usage to fund a new countywide water quality protection district.
The proposal is being pitched as an attempt to reduce nitrogen pollution from thousands of homes that are not on sewers.
But nitrogen’s the side deal here.
The main event is that Bellone wants to find a way — tailored municipality by municipality — to blunt the impact of cesspools on the environment. And where appropriate to build sewers to spur regional development.
Most of Suffolk has no sewers.
But the proposal, which administration officials acknowledge is a first draft, would not put sewers where they are not wanted. Suchas in some East End communities, which want to preserve their bucolic nature.
Still there are other areas that are desperate for sewers, or expansion of sewage systems. Among them is downtown Smithtown, where a new restaurant can’t open unless some other one closes — to make room in the system.
And then there are residential homeowners, who likely would be receptive to getting grants or loans to replace existing cesspools — the concrete and pipe system that passively handles wastewater — with more active, state-of-the art systems.
Or property owners near vulnerable watershed regions, where saving the water by hooking a few homes to a new sewer system would be expensive.
What about new modular home developments, or small commercial development clusters?
There are mini-sewage systems that could help there.
In short, the proposal seeks specific solutions for specific areas.
Why the tie to water usage? The county makes what should be a logical explanation cumbersome by linking Bellone’s proposal so closely to the goal of mitigating nitrogen in vulnerable watershed areas.
Suffolk residents have long supported the idea of funding clean water — as the county did in 1987 when voters agreed to fund the Suffolk Drinking Water Protection Program via a quarter-cent sales tax. A portion of that money ended up being used for county operating expenses — under Bellone and his predessessor, Steve Levy — until environmentalists sued, successfully, to stop the practice and have the funds put back.
Meanwhile, the county, in 2007, passed a law barring application of nitrogen-rich fertilizers between Nov. 1 and April 1, with violators subject to fines of up to $1,000.
How is the current Bellone initiative different?
Despite the nitrogen sell, the proposal really is about building sewers, where they make sense; it’s about replacing old cesspools with modern ones; and it’s about halting the leach of wastewater, via cesspool, into wetlands.
For 40 years, Suffolk’s needed to address the issue, which is one reason why some initial support is coming from across party lines. Bellone’s proposal is a start — and the thinking behind it is solid.
But it must be better explained for what it’s about — cesspools, which tie logically to a proposed fee on water usage — and for how residents in Suffolk’s crazy-quilt of communities would benefit.