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Dobie: New momentum to save Long Island's water

Long Island sewage plants got a top grade

Long Island sewage plants got a top grade for removing nitrogen that negatively affects Long Island Sound. This is Fishers Island on the east end of the Sound on Aug. 8, 2012. Credit: Randee Daddona

The last 12 months have been a good year for water.

That sounds weird coming after the demise of the Long Island water-quality bill in the State Senate. Passage of the bill -- which among other things would set specific criteria for nitrogen levels on a watershed basis -- would have made this year a monumental one in the fight to clean our water.

Even with that, this has been an important year: It's the year the conversation changed.

The debate no longer is over whether we have to do something. It's about what we have to do, and by when.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has gotten involved, members of Congress are engaged, both county executives have committed to the cause, local elected officials and members of the business community recognize the need to act, and the public is more aware of the issues.

You know you're making progress when a civic leader at a town board meeting opposes a development because it might increase nitrogen loads.

And real victories have been recorded.

Nassau received $150 million in federal Sandy-recovery money for a nitrogen-removal system at the Bay Park sewage treatment plant and Suffolk got $250 million from the same fund for new sewers -- by arguing that reducing nitrogen improves storm resiliency.

Suffolk and environmentalists reached a deal to make available $75 million for water-quality projects and put a referendum before voters in November that would stop the county from borrowing from the drinking water protection program without voter approval.

Suffolk has launched a $60,000 study on the feasibility of high-tech, "clustered" septic systems that collect waste from dozens of homes and reduce nitrogen by up to 90 percent -- an important tool for areas that cannot be sewered. The county is also researching financing methods to make such systems affordable for homeowners.

State officials, under Cuomo's direction, held a series of public meetings on Long Island to gather information that will lead to recommendations on protecting groundwater, improving wastewater treatment and improving storm resiliency. That report is due soon.

A cynic might surmise the governor wants to use that report as the basis for water quality legislation of his own and sees the issue as one best addressed after the election.

Another theory making the rounds: Senate Republican leaders thwarted a vote on the existing water-quality bill because they didn't want to hand a victory to environmentalist Adrienne Esposito, running for a Senate seat against Republican-Conservative nominee Anthony Senft, an Islip Town councilman. That's strange logic, because now Esposito has an issue she can pound away on.

What is certain about the bill's demise is that farmers and builders fought hard against it. But they're swimming against a tide of indisputable facts: What we're doing to preserve our water isn't working. We need to do something else. If you're part of the problem, you have to be part of the solution. No more bobbing and weaving allowed.

The bill wasn't perfect, but it was a good start. If this setback is temporary and leads to the bill -- or a better version -- being passed in a lame-duck session after the election or even next year, that's OK. But standing still is not an option.

As the bill was being scuttled in Albany, researchers at Stony Brook University were announcing that despite a colder-than-average spring that inhibits algae blooms that feed on excessive nitrogen, a new red tide was found in Westhampton and blue-green algae blooms were found on the East End.

We've made progress, yes, but the problem isn't going away. Neither, I hope, is the past year's momentum.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.