The Suffolk Legislature on Tuesday unanimously approved a $10 million grant program to help homeowners pay for high-tech septic systems that can cost as much as $17,500, in the first major step in a county program to combat nitrogen levels in local waters.

Lawmakers also approved the hiring of four new employees so the county can begin processing grant applications July 1. Officials hope installations can begin four to six weeks later.

“Today Suffolk County has made history . . . to help solve our water quality crisis on Long Island,” said County Executive Steve Bellone, who proposed the grant effort. “After decades of managing the decline of our water bodies, we are finally turning the tide.”

The grants funded under the county watershed protection program will allow about 200 homeowners annually over the next five years to convert aging cesspools, especially in low-lying areas near surface waters. However, its impact will be limited, given that 360,000 homes in Suffolk have cesspools that do little to remove nitrogen.

Backers of the new program also say it will help the county compete for $75 million in state money available for infrastructure improvement across New York.

“We can’t wait any longer since there are millions of dollars on the table,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “If we snooze, we lose.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, warned the county still needs state legislation to permit a public referendum to develop an “ongoing fee or funding source” to deal with the wider problem, an effort that has languished.

Under the program, homeowners can apply for grants of up to $11,000 for the installation of new systems if they make less than $300,000 a year in income; grants of $5,000 are available for those making between $300,000 and $500,000.

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Homeowners can qualify to finance the remaining cost over 15 years at three percent interest, officials said. The loan program will be administered by Community Development Corporation of Long Island Funding Corp., with financial support from Bridgehampton National Bank.

County officials said the new program will give priority to homes in low-lying priority areas, although there is no advantage based on low income.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) also sought and got agreement from Bellone aides that residents should be warned about additional costs they will incur, such as permit fees and maintenance costs.

Health officials said they expect system owners to incur $300 in annual maintenance fees, and from $20 to $266 annually in electricity costs, depending on which of four approved systems they use.

Some criticized the grant program Tuesday.

“My suggestion is to rename this program a “corporate workfare” program for real estate developers . . . and attorneys,” said Peter Akras, a plan opponent from Wading River. The program will “open the floodgates to these unproven systems which will saddle the taxpayers with operating expenses for years, increase development, and do very little to reduce nitrogen in our waters,” Akras said.

But Elinore Restivo, who lives near the water in Hampton Bays, said she has seen water quality deteriorate over the past 50 years.

“It may not be a solution, but it is a beginning,” said Restivo, who hopes to get a grant for her property.