Southampton Town will consider Tuesday a pilot project to help residents replace antiquated septic tanks with new systems -- a move being called the next step in the clean water fight.
Environmental watchdogs say the proposed project is one of the first that would deal with a looming problem Suffolk County public officials have been loath to touch.
About 70 percent of homes in the county are on septic systems, which leach nitrogen into the water table -- primarily from urine, said Kevin McAllister, head of the environmental group Peconic Baykeeper.
While current nitrogen levels are safe for drinking water, the amount that seeps into bays and tributaries produces readings well above what they should be for surface waters, McAllister said. That causes algal blooms, such as red and brown tides.
The Southampton plan, sponsored by Councilwoman Christine Scalera, is small. It would set aside $50,000 in an incentive program for replacing septic tanks installed before 1981. The program would offer a 50 percent to 60 percent replacement-cost incentive for replacing old septic systems with ones up to the current standard, which can cost $5,000 or more.
Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University who studies algal blooms, applauded the effort as at least symbolic.
"It's a recognition by public officials that the septic problem is a concern," he said. "Even if it's a small program, it's a pioneering program for Suffolk County. It's pointing in the right direction."
Scalera acknowledged the program is only a start: "We should not let perfect get in the way of good. It's something we can do now."
McAllister said the attention brought to the issue is good. But he said the state and Suffolk County need to increase regulation and adopt stricter codes for septic systems.
Other areas, such as Chesapeake Bay and Cape Cod, have adopted more stringent wastewater codes and have approved denitrification septic systems.
"We're barely talking about it right now," McAllister said. "We still have our head in the sand."
Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst called the proposal "part of a toolbox to address issues of degradation of our waters."
Ultimately, she said, it will take federal, state and local governments working with private industries to bring down the price of high-tech denitrification systems.
"There's a need for new technology to serve an area like ours," she said. "The idea to start to sewer this area is unrealistic."