Scientists, politicians and environmentalists met Tuesday in Stony Brook to discuss nitrogen pollution in Long Island's waterways in the wake of several mass fish kills thought to stem from the problem.
The forum, hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters, focused on technological and funding solutions to the nitrogen problem in Suffolk County.
"This has become a social, economic, environmental and political issue which crosses all boundaries," Mitchell Pally, chair of the Long Island chapter of the group, said in his opening remarks at the forum.
Nitrogen pollution, largely from septic systems, is thought by some experts to be the underlying cause of three recent mass fish kills in the Peconic River in Riverhead in which hundreds of thousands of bunker fish died of asphyxiation.
Algae blooms, fed by excessive levels of nitrogen, could have sucked the oxygen out of the water, leading to the deaths, said Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
"When you've got conditions of high nitrogen and high levels of algae that already are leading to conditions of low oxygen, that's when you're going to have a fish kill," he said. "If we can work toward mitigating nitrogen, we can work toward moving things back to the sort of ecosystems that we'd like to see."
Other scientists, however, have argued the fish kills could be attributed to natural seasonal changes in the water.
The kills are being investigated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County Department of Health Services. The two agencies are expected to issue a report on the matter.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who has made nitrogen reduction a key issue in his administration, said sustained effort was needed at all levels of government.
"This crisis was not created overnight -- it built up over decades," Bellone said. "It therefore will not be solved overnight."
The meeting focused partly on technological solutions to nitrogen in wastewater systems -- particularly among the 70 percent of Suffolk County that remains unsewered and on septic systems or cesspools that leach wastewater into the ground.
"What does better technology look like?" said Harold Walker, professor of mechanical engineering at Stony Brook University, and director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, which was created last year. "They need to be more effective, they need to be more reliable and they need to be more affordable."
The forum also included a panel on ways to find money to upgrade the area's septic systems -- particularly for single-family homeowners.
"That's the question of the day, especially with individual septics in Suffolk County," Pally said.
Some of the ideas included extending the community preservation fund, currently used for preserving open space, to allow for its use in improving water quality, as well as seeking dollars beyond Long Island's borders.
"This has to be a federal, state and local solution," said David Calone, president of Jove Equity Partners and Suffolk County Planning Commission chair. "This is not just a New York problem. This is not just a Long Island problem."