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OpinionEditorial

Cleaner water takes time

The Long Island Sound in Wading River.

The Long Island Sound in Wading River. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The news was clearly good, and its context even better.

The news came from a study of the Long Island Sound that showed dissolved oxygen levels have been increasing. That reversal of a decadeslong decline is important because low oxygen levels, or hypoxia, had helped deplete marine life — fish, shellfish, crustaceans. This threatened the Sound's vibrancy as a regional commercial and recreational magnet. A healthy Long Island Sound is part of a healthy Long Island.

As good as that was to learn, a more critical lesson must be heeded. This achievement resulted from nearly three decades of work, oodles of cash, adherence to science, and relentless focus by government at all levels, buoyed by public support for the environment.

In other words, big changes are possible, but they take time, money and perseverance. That has relevance for challenges we face today.

This particular story begins in 1994, when huge sections of the Long Island Sound suffered from hypoxia. New York and Connecticut signed an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the amount of nitrogen, a huge contributor to the problem, emanating from the sewage treatment plants that ring the Sound. Facilities in Nassau and Suffolk counties and in Connecticut revamped or rebuilt their plants, and New York City and Westchester also improved their facilities. The effort cost billions of dollars — money best viewed as an investment, not an expenditure — but those low-oxygen zones shrank from nearly 400 square miles in 1994 to about 52 square miles in 2018.

Now consider some of the region's other seemingly intractable problems such as excess nitrogen in the bays and estuaries along the South Shore and the East End. That won't disappear tomorrow, but significant and measurable progress will be made by following through on long-term plans like the project in Nassau to clean the Western Bays by diverting treated sewage from the Bay Park plant to the ocean outfall pipe at the Cedar Creek facility. Same goes for Suffolk's plans to extend sewers and help homeowners convert inefficient cesspools and septic systems to high-tech alternatives far better at removing nitrogen.

These solutions won't be cheap or quick, but they will make more of Long Island's waters cleaner and healthier. And they will become even more important as our waters continue to warm, because warmer waters also reduce oxygen levels.

Similar sustained commitments will be essential in the fight against climate change, a war that won't be won by erecting a few offshore wind farms. Intuitively, we all know the long approach works because we've seen the principle in action.

Remember the ban on DDT? The pesticide was outlawed in 1972 and within 25 years, populations of peregrine falcons, brown pelicans and ospreys — now so common on Long Island — rebounded dramatically. The bald eagle, the symbol of our nation, saw a tenfold increase.

So celebrate the good news from the Sound. Then use it to energize our future battles.

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