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An ugly fact: Pretty lawns help to pollute LI's water

Lawn during the summer.

Lawn during the summer. Credit: iStock

The water management plan released this week by Suffolk County is filled with alarming statistics and vivid descriptions of the threats to our water and the degradation taking place. It echoes much that we've read before about nitrogen, its pernicious effects, government's efforts to reduce it, and what needs to be done.

But the report also points a finger at another group that hasn't been a whole lot of help: Us. We're part of the problem, too.

A significant contributor to nitrogen pollution is fertilizer. And Suffolk homeowners use 2.5 times as much total fertilizer as any county in the state. Yes, farms are part of the problem, but 79 percent of Suffolk's fertilizer is not spread on farms. It's used on lawns, mostly residential. The figure probably is higher in Nassau, which needs to do its own water management plan. And when you overwater, nitrogen speeds right past the roots it's supposed to nourish and into groundwater.

Suffolk is taking steps to combat the source of most of its nitrogen pollution -- bad septic systems. New sewers are on the way in some places. Innovative wastewater systems are being tested for homes and neighborhoods, and officials are working on ways for homeowners to afford the upgrades. Suffolk also is doing a pilot project to reuse wastewater from the Riverhead sewage treatment plant to irrigate a golf course, saving water and reducing nitrogen. Now it's our turn. We can use slow-release organic fertilizers and water deeper but less frequently, for example.

What's happening to our water is scary -- from the loss of wetlands and sea grass to rising nitrogen in our aquifers, from the collapse of the clam and bay scallop industries to the rise in brown and red tides.

Suffolk is embarking on an education program on what homeowners can do about this. Pay attention. We have a lot to learn.