Have you heard the one about the three guys who were shooting the breeze in the office one day and ended up saving the Western Bays?

It’s not a joke. It’s not fiction. It might not even be hyperbole. More analysis of their plan is needed. But give credit to three officials in Nassau County’s Department of Public Works who might have solved the problem of how to stop the degradation of the Western Bays ecosystem on Nassau’s South Shore.

Their idea is inspired and ingenious, and underscores the importance of maintaining infrastructure.

The Western Bays are choked with nitrogen from effluent dumped in Reynolds Channel by the Bay Park sewage treatment plant in southwest Nassau. The county, which let the problem fester for decades, has been struggling to find $450 million to build a pipe to take the effluent out to the Atlantic Ocean.

DPW officials Ken Arnold and Brian Schneider were in Chief Deputy Commissioner Rich Millet’s office a couple months ago discussing unrelated drainage issues around Sunrise Highway when one of them mentioned an old 6-foot aqueduct laid under the road. Intrigued, Millet asked about the aqueduct and the trio devised a plan to use a 10-mile section to divert Bay Park’s effluent eastward to an ocean outfall pipe at the county’s Cedar Creek plant in Wantagh.

If it seems like a bolt out of the blue, that’s also how it struck the DPW officials — and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which must approve the plan. After doing a fair amount of technical vetting, the DEC says the idea is very promising.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The biggest question is the condition of the aqueduct, which was built in 1908 to pump water to Brooklyn from Hempstead Lake, manmade ponds along Sunrise Highway, and other sources. The pipe was taken out of service in 1966, and last inspected in 1971. Nassau plans to hire a firm to walk the length of the water main with a camera to check for cracks, and the pipe’s structural integrity will be tested. A smaller pipe would be laid like an inner sleeve into the main, a connecting pipe of up to 2 miles would be built from each plant to the aqueduct, and pumping stations might be needed. Another issue the DEC is studying is whether systems being installed at Bay Park to cut nitrogen in half would be sufficient. There can be no compromising on the mandate to remove nitrogen.

Using the existing pipe would cut time and money from the project, speeding restoration of the Western Bays and the marshland that can protect the coast from storm surges. The county still has to finance the estimated cost of $200 million to $300 million, but the savings would help cut through a knot of funding issues.

The plan validates the advice of Arnold and Schneider’s old boss, former county water management director Jim Mulligan, after Nassau bought the aqueduct from New York City in 1986. Keep the pipe intact, Mulligan told them, because the county will need it one day. Thirty years later, prophecy is poised to become reality.

And we all learn a lesson about the value of good infrastructure in the service of creative thinking. — The editorial board