Leading what they hope becomes a massive effort to clean up Suffolk County's waterways one septic system at a time, Southampton Town officials are seeking grants to create a system that would reduce nitrogen in the region's groundwater.
The goal, according to a proposal written last month: to develop an affordable technology that would replace or retrofit individual on-site septic systems so they would significantly reduce nitrogen levels in domestic wastewater.
"The degradation of our water is really a crime, and I would say at this point almost an emergency issue for all of us," said Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst at a Suffolk County Supervisors Association meeting June 28.
She was joined at the meeting by Islip, Babylon and Brookhaven supervisors, who publicly supported the effort.
"Water quality is at the foundation of our economic well-being, our quality of life, everything that drives life as we know it on Long Island."
Throne-Holst cited increased water quality problems such as algal blooms, red and brown tides and high levels of bacteria as urgent issues for the region. Because about 70 percent of Suffolk is on individual septic systems, the effects of high levels of nitrogen flowing into waterways should be solved by tackling the problem at each site, Throne-Holst said.
But technology available to update antiquated septic systems is cost-prohibitive, and doesn't do enough to reduce the nitrogen in groundwater, she said. "The systems we have are not dealing with the standards as we know them, and the standards will probably be . . . made harder" in coming years, she said.
Last month, the town submitted a preliminary application to the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council for $2.7 million in "transformative" grant funds to build an incubator facility to develop and test a new system to reduce nitrogen emissions from septic systems.
"It's a generational issue that needs to be licked," said Stephen Savage, member of the economic development council and corporate senior vice president of CA Technologies, who described the project as an ideal candidate for the funding. "It's going to be a huge problem for generations to come."
The next step, Throne-Holst and Savage said, is to do a feasibility study that would generate interest, mobilize support for the initiative, identify possible partners -- such as universities and environmental groups -- and research what kind of similar technology exists nationwide, Savage said.
Suffolk Planning Commission chairman David Calone said new measures of water protection are needed especially on the East End, where good water quality is key to both the environment and the economy.
"The Southampton proposal will allow us to test a bunch of different products that exist now as well as products being invented right now," Calone said. "To have a facility that could provide real, good scientific data . . . about what works and what doesn't work is very important, because we need to develop decentralized wastewater systems to protect our East End waters."
January to September 2014: Promote understanding of problem by hosting discussions and site visits with industry experts; begin work to build/outfit a testing center
September 2014 to March 2015: Complete testing center; begin testing of available technology; issue RFPs for new/updated technology submissions (responses to be reviewed and scored by expert panel members); promote opportunities to science/engineering community
March 2015 to December 2015: Build and refine prototypes with help of local universities and research centers; continue testing
By September 2016: Develop prototypes for alternative treatment systems or retrofits for individual on-site systems; publish findings
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