The quality of Long Island's estuaries reached "crisis" levels this summer, with nitrogen-rich waterways afflicted by a combination of the most widespread rust tide algae blooms in recent memory and fishkills caused by oxygen-starved waters, environmental activists said Tuesday.
A new report, compiled by Christopher Gobler, professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, which studied Long Island's coastal waters from May through September, found excessive nitrogen pollution was fueling an array of public health concerns.
"There's hardly a region across all of Long Island that has been immune to water quality impairment," Gobler said at a news conference at the Fire Island National Seashore Visitor's Center in Patchogue. "One could call it a crisis. And we would call it a crisis."
The problems, Gobler said, began in May with several paralytic shellfish poisoning events because of low oxygen levels in Shinnecock Bay on the East End and on the North Shore in Northport Harbor and Huntington Harbor.
The region also faced the most widespread rust tide bloom in Long Island history — stretching for the first time from the South Shore to the North Shore and on the East End, resulting in the death of thousands of oysters and fish in Southampton.
And blue-green algae blooms were discovered in more than 20 lakes across Long Island, producing toxins that can harm both humans and animals, officials said. In 2017, Suffolk had more lakes with blue-green algae blooms than any other county in the state — a distinction expected to continue this year, the report said.
Each of the events, the report found, was fueled by nitrogen pollution, primarily from household sewage. Nearly 75 percent of Suffolk homes do not have a sewer system, and an estimated 252,000 homes use cesspools — holding tanks that eventually leach untreated waste directly into the ground. Another 108,000 properties have traditional septic systems, which, while offering better overall treatment, do little to reduce nitrogen.
"This is the greatest challenge Long Island faces for its sustainability," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We have to meet this challenge to meet the long term needs of the island."
But John Tanacredi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring in West Sayville, argues many of the events described in the report are naturally occurring phenomenon and the threat of nitrogen from wastewater has been overblown.
"Blaming everything on septic systems is an overstatement," said Tanacredi, a professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Molloy College in Rockville Centre. "This is not an ecological catastrophe."
While the state has committed $2.5 billion to improve water quality with septic system rebates, sewer infrastructure upgrades and repairs, environmental advocates contend more money is needed from U.S. agencies.
"The investment from the federal government is entirely unsatisfactory," said Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. "Our members of the House and Senate are not doing what they need to do ... It's a big missing piece."
Although the report showed serious concerns with most area waterways, there were signs of progress.
The Long Island Sound Report Card, released Monday by other environmental groups, showed that a decadeslong, $2 billion effort to treat nitrogen at dozens of sewage treatment plants that discharge into the Sound had improved water quality. The report card said low-oxygen zones found in the Sound each summer were shrinking and fish die-offs were smaller and less frequent.