Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced there is more than $255 million in state money available for water infrastructure projects, including $20 million set aside for septic upgrades in Suffolk County.
The state allocated $30 million to replace old and failing septic systems in targeted counties, two-thirds of which will go to Suffolk. The $20 million, which will be administered through Suffolk County’s “Reclaim Our Water” septic improvement plan, will help fund an estimated 2,000 new systems.
The Suffolk program offers grants to fund the cost of replacing traditional septic systems with methods that remove nitrogen from wastewater, known as Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (I/A OWTS).
“It's an environmental issue, it's a quality-of-life issue. It's a public health issue,” Hochul said during a news conference at the Suffolk County Water Authority’s education center in Hauppauge on Thursday. “They [septic systems] may be underground … [but] they're very, very, very much on our radar.”
Suffolk has 360,000 aging cesspools and septic systems, environmental advocates said. To date, more than 1,100 septic systems have been installed through the Suffolk program, and roughly 3,400 homeowners have applied for grants of between $10,000 and $20,000, officials said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, speaking Thursday, said having most of Suffolk’s population on outdated septic systems has led to an increase in algal blooms, red and brown tides, fish kills and other harmful effects in local waterways. While there are efforts to build sewers in some communities — including a $157 million project to construct sewers in Babylon Town that began in October — those systems are impractical in other locations.
“The problem is … funding,” Bellone said. “That has been the biggest constraint on the expansion of this program, which is critical to Long Island and Suffolk County.”
Critics of the county’s efforts point out the IA systems require electricity and can cost hundreds of dollars per year to maintain. Some scientists also believe the county’s plan overstates the impact of septic systems on Suffolk’s waterways, downplaying other sources of pollution like fertilizer and nitrogen in the air.
“The concepts of septic systems being the primary sources of nitrogen pollution … is a myth, it does not play out,” said John Tanacredi, executive director of Molloy University’s Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring.
The grants also come with tax burdens. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will seek a reversal of a 2020 Internal Revenue Service ruling that levied tax hikes on homeowners who received septic grants.
The governor also announced a new round of $225 million available to New York water providers to treat emerging contaminants like 1,4-dioxane and PFOS/PFOA. The money was included in the 2022-23 state budget.
Jeff Szabo, CEO of the Suffolk County Water Authority, noted treatment systems to remove these compounds are expensive and called the news “not just a victory for drinking water quality, but also for ratepayers of Suffolk County.”