Using treated wastewater runoff to water golf courses, reducing the culture of overwatered lawns, expanding sewers and increasing contaminant investigations are all part of a long-range plan Suffolk County is releasing Monday to combat an "alarming trend" of water-quality issues plaguing the region.
The long-awaited Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, last updated in 1987, says nitrogen is "public water enemy" No. 1, calling it the "bomb in our bays." Nitrate concentrations in the Magothy aquifer beneath Long Island increased more than 80 percent between 1987 and 2013.
The 1,040-page document also touches on volatile organic chemicals in groundwater, harmful algal blooms, thousands of lost acres of sea grass, vanishing wetlands and dying clam stocks.
"It's a problem today but unaddressed. It's a crisis in a matter of a few short decades," said Justin Meyers, an assistant deputy county executive in Suffolk. "We need to, as a region, reclaim our water and fix the issue."
The plan lays out 15 pages of actions, campaigns, policies and monitoring programs to reverse the damage to groundwater, streams, bays and harbors.
It's divided into focus areas including nitrogen, volatile organic chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, coastal resilience, surface water quality and data collection. The report did not contain total cost estimates.
"That list accurately depicts the breadth and depth of how we have to move forward," said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, an environmental organization. "There is a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."
Much of the report's focus is on nitrogen, excess levels of which have impaired waters, caused algal blooms, hurt clam stocks, depleted oxygen levels, and destroyed natural coastal barrier and storm buffers like marshland.
"We have to stop the bleeding now and turn this around," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.
Take note, homeowners
A hefty portion of the nitrogen comes from outdated septic systems in a county where 74 percent of homes are not connected to sewage treatment plants. Of the 360,000 septic systems in Suffolk, more than 250,000 were built before 1972, when tanks were not required.
Suffolk has already announced a $383 million sewage expansion to remove reliance on septics that will include parts of Mastic, North Babylon, West Babylon, Patchogue and Great River.
Completely sewering Suffolk would cost an estimated $9 billion but remove 70 percent of the nitrogen seeping into bays and harbors.
Runoff from fertilizer also contributes to the county's high nitrogen levels.
One new finding in the report: In New York, about 70 percent of fertilizer use comes from farms and the remainder from residential and nonbusiness uses. Not so in Suffolk County, where the trend is reversed and 79.1 percent of fertilizer use is not from farming.
"It comes from neighborhoods, and the only way to really combat that is to educate people on usage," Meyers said.
Echoing the report, Walter Dawydiak, director of environmental quality in Suffolk's Department of Health Services, said excessive watering, in addition to being wasteful, can "drive nutrients into groundwater instead of the root system."
The county is working with Cornell Cooperative Extension to create a webisode about a homeowner "weening off nitrogen dependence," said Sarah Lansdale, director of planning and environment.
"Here in Suffolk County we love our lawns," Lansdale said.
While previous drafts of the plan have laid out the surface and groundwater ills facing Suffolk, this report is the first to declare the connection to nitrogen, said Kevin McDonald, a conservation, finance and policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island.
"Nitrogen is a serious problem in our groundwater and in our bays and harbors," McDonald said. "If you know what your problem is and you know your problem pollutant, you can remove it and natural systems will recover."
What's being done
A number of pilot programs are underway to tackle issues, Lansdale said.
A treatment plant in Riverhead is using sanitized sewage treatment plant effluent to water the Indian Island Golf Course, lessening the need for public water and fertilizers. A project in Southold will install a living shoreline, using green technology to protect coastal areas. In another pilot, effluents from a septic system will be diverted into the root zone of a lawn in Peconic.
A bright spot in the report is declining levels of the chemicals MTBE, a banned gasoline additive, and Trichloroethane, which the county banned in 1980.
"Once a source is reduced or eliminated, that impact [of lower concentrations] is showing up in the public supply network," Dawydiak said.
However, concentrations of volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, "are low but going in the wrong direction," Dawydiak said.
About 22 percent of public water supply wells in the county have treatment systems to treat VOCs before it is released as drinking water.
The agency is also tracking emerging unregulated contaminants, such as 1,4-dioxane, a solvent used in the creation of other chemicals. It is also used in small amounts in personal care products like shampoo and cosmetics, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled it as likely carcinogenic.
The chemical is not regulated by drinking water standards. Of the 40 public water suppliers in New York that have detected levels of 1,4-dioxane, 31 were on Long Island, according to the plan.
"It's definitely an issue of concern," Dawydiak said.
Last year the Office of Pollution Control hired three field technicians, an engineer and a chemist to bulk up monitoring and investigations. During the year, all 400 dry cleaners and 1,000 gas stations -- two significant polluters to Long Island aquifers -- in Suffolk will be inspected. The intent is to stop the pollution before it becomes a problem or to identify issues early.
"If we prevent the pollution today it means in 10 or 20 years we won't have a new round of chemicals or plumes," said Carrie Meek Gallagher, chief sustainability officer for the Suffolk County Water Authority.
The plan will be presented Monday to the Suffolk legislature's Environment, Planning and Agriculture committee.
"There's a lot of items that are going to continue to unfold over the course of the year and beyond," Bellone said.
Meyers said moving forward will require state, local and national assistance.
"We're going to need to think of revenue streams to make this happen," DeLuca said. "At least we don't have to make the argument that this is an issue anymore. There is an alignment happening."