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Editorial: Concern about water is good. Now what?

This appeared to be red or brown tide

This appeared to be red or brown tide in Flanders Bay, just inside Great Peconic Bay. The Riverhead Business District is just visible in the upper left of the frame on Aug. 14, 2013. Credit: Doug Kuntz

The announcement by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone that Long Island has a water-quality problem was worth a shrug for its news value. But it is important for its symbolism: The first step toward solving a problem is acknowledging it exists. Bellone also said he is going to do something about it and floated some possibilities. That's all well and good and we applaud him for making the promise.

The real test is the words that come next. What is his action plan? Which geographic areas will he prioritize and what solutions do they need? How much will it cost and where will the money come from? The proposals need to be substantial and the funding real.

Bellone's comments last week were accompanied by a county report that said all the right things. It identified nitrogen as "enemy #1" and noted that most of the nitrogen degrading our surface water and groundwater comes from septic tanks and cesspools. It cited the trendlines of pollution and stressed the need to act now. And it landed on the right side of the cost-benefit analysis by noting the money needed to fix our water-quality problems is substantial, but the consequences of doing nothing are potentially devastating.

Building sewers, even small decentralized systems meant to serve compact areas, is expensive. Incentivizing homeowners to upgrade septic systems isn't cheap, either. There are Department of Health positions that were cut and must be restored. Finding new revenue streams is critical, as is persuading the public of the need to act. Nassau County must join in, too, since water quality is a regional issue. And state legislation establishing tougher nitrogen standards and a state Long Island water commission with enforcement powers must be approved.

The journey to clean water is going to be a long one. Bellone and Suffolk County have taken a step forward.

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