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Cutchogue elementary students win $5G grant in new Water Quality Challenge competition

Seventh-grader Allison Grattan, from left, Cutchogue East principal

Seventh-grader Allison Grattan, from left, Cutchogue East principal Kathleen Devine, STEAM coordinator Meghan Tepfenhardt and seventh-graders Melody Hammerle and Matthew Haas tend to the rain garden at Cutchogue East Elementary School in Southold Town. Credit: Randee Daddona

Elementary school students in Southold Town have won a $5,000 grant for a project designed to reduce runoff and nitrogen pollution on school grounds that contaminates local waters.

Cutchogue East Elementary School was one of two in Suffolk County to get a grant from The Long Island Regional Planning Council as part of its first Long Island Water Quality Challenge. The challenge is a STEM competition encouraging students to reduce runoff and nitrogen pollution on school grounds and incorporate those projects into ongoing educational programs.

Meghan Tepfenhardt, the Cutchogue school’s STEAM coordinator (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics), told Newsday last week that students began their research about a year ago. The students used readers’ and writers’ workshops to research nitrogen pollution and its effects on Peconic waterways in years past before working on design options.

Tepfenhardt said she hoped the project helped participating students learn more about and appreciate their local waterways.

"The best learning is authentic learning," Tepfenhardt said. "They sail these waters, they swim in these waters, they fish there, there’s family members who work in marinas and as fishermen. Developing a greater understanding of the local ecosystems and the affect we have on them, positive and negative, is very important."

In the end, seventh-graders Matthew Haas, Melody Hammerle, Allison Grattan and Jake Talbot, who worked on the winning project while in sixth grade last year, created a design and plan for implementing a bioretention garden on the school’s campus. The project will use soil, plants and microbes to treat stormwater before it is infiltrated or discharged.

Haas, 13, of Southold, said he had fun working on the project and came away with a greater appreciation of why it’s important to protect local waters.

"It was interesting learning how plants work in a natural environment and how nitrogen harms waters," Haas said. "With global warming, it’s important to learn how to help the waters and reduce pollution before it turns to chaos."

As solutions are sought to cut nitrogen pollution in Long Island waters, environmental groups said educating children on how to take care of the Island’s waterways is a big step in assuring the future of the local ecosystem.

Joyce Novack, program director at the Peconic Estuary Partnership, said there had been "great strides" in reducing nitrogen in Peconic and East End waterways, such as Suffolk County working with communities to upgrade septic systems. However, the presence of algal blooms in local waters indicates there is still work ahead, Novack added.

"We still have a lot of work to do, and it’s important to continue to raise awareness and education" she said. "Educating school-age children is extremely important because not only does it teach them the problem and steps to reduce it, but they bring that message home and it resounds in the communities they live in."

Richard Guardino, executive director of The Long Island Regional Planning Council, had similar thoughts.

"Water is the lifeblood of Long Island. It’s in everything we do" he said. "There’s starting to be a real understanding that we have to focus on this and do whatever we can to protect our water resources."

NITROGEN POLLUTION

  • Wastewater is the largest land-based contributor of nitrogen (50%) to the Peconic Estuary. Much of the nitrogen pollution has been linked to unsewered, dense suburban sprawl. An estimated 69% of the total nitrogen affecting local ground and surface water supplies comes from wastewater.
  • In 2020, the Peconic waters experienced several harmful algal blooms, such as rust tide, mahogany tide, and toxic blue-green algae, driven in large part by nitrogen imbalances in local waters.
  • Excess nitrogen loading can cause harmful algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen and degraded habitats.
  • Suffolk County groundwater data for nitrate shows a linear increase over the past 30 years, according to a 2019 report titled "State of the Bays" issued by Dr. Chris Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Source: Joyce Novack, program director at the Peconic Estuary Partnership

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