Tucked away in the state's new $150-billion budget is a comparatively small sum that's a big deal for Long Island: $5 million to make real progress on our water pollution problem.
The money will pay for a study on the primary sources of the nitrogen that is polluting our rivers and bays and groundwater, the effects of that contamination, and what can be done to reverse it. It's a significant commitment by the state, and recognition that there is consensus -- not only that we need to change what we have been doing, but also that the response must be managed in a coordinated and regional way. The action is welcome and long overdue and credit should be given to Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) in the Assembly, Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) in the Senate and their colleagues.
The money is part of a state budget that is generally good news for the environment, here and around the state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators agreed to a $200-million fund over three years for clean water infrastructure. These grants to municipalities for new and improved sewer and septic systems are a clear potential benefit for our region.
The budget continued and reformed the state's brownfield cleanup programs -- though we wish the principal reforms, providing greater incentives for sites in the most distressed communities, applied to more than New York City. It also extended the state Superfund program for 10 years and $1 billion.
The Environmental Protection Fund, so important on Long Island in terms of farmland protection and open space purchases, was increased by $15 million. Alas, the money was taken from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, where it's used for projects that reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. So one environmental fund was raided to bolster another, with no new money being brought to the table. That's unfortunate.
As for the nitrogen pollution study, such a plan was part of the Long Island water-quality bill derailed in the State Senate last spring for a host of reasons. Separating it from the rest of the bill and getting it funded on its merits was a smart maneuver.
While no one can object to getting the facts that define the problem, devising solutions is another issue. Many competing interests are likely to be vocal. Whatever conclusions are reached will be nonbinding. That's because Long Island has lots of entities that deal with water issues -- county departments of health and public works, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, public and private water-supply companies -- but no regional body with authority. Absent that, the initial funding is going through the Long Island Regional Planning Council, one of the groups that raised objections to last year's bill. State legislation probably will be needed to determine how the money is spent, who does the study, what standards are mandated, and who regulates actions required to meet those standards.
It's becoming increasingly clear there is broad agreement that water quality is a top priority for our region. It's time that competing interests put aside their differences and work together to change the tide.