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State funds just a start to clean LI’s waterways

Excessive levels of nitrogen from sources, such as

Excessive levels of nitrogen from sources, such as wastewater and septic systems, are harming the salt marshes on Long Island, including this one in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, seen here on Nov. 10, 2012, that are critical in protecting coastal communities from storm surges and flooding, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has said. Credit: NPS / Diane Abell

Keep your eyes on the prize. It’s pretty basic advice, but it’s critical guidance for everyone trying to help Suffolk County solve its awful wastewater problem.

We have supported a county plan to put a referendum before voters asking them to institute a fee on water usage. Revenue would help fund replacements for home cesspools and septic systems that produce most of the nitrogen fouling Long Island’s waters. The proposal, which requires approval of the State Legislature, appears to be withering in the face of opposition from Long Island’s Republican senators. That’s unfortunate.

But another door is opening, and it’s one all parties should stride through. Discussions are underway about bumping up the $2 billion for water infrastructure in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget for 2017-18 and using that to fund Suffolk’s plan. It’s a good idea. Adding another, say, $1 billion specifically for septic replacement would address major needs both in Suffolk and the Adirondack and Fingers Lakes regions. Given the depth and breadth of the respective problems, most of that money would come here. And it would be larger than what would have been raised through Suffolk’s referendum.

But the funding would end after five years. Suffolk will have made progress by then, but still will face years of nitrogen battles with no recurring revenue source to fund the war. Providing a substantial sum of money is good and buys them time, but lawmakers eventually must allow Suffolk’s plan to go to voters.

The goal remains the same: Get nitrogen out of Long Island’s waters. Cuomo and the State Legislature have to deal with Suffolk’s septic and cesspool problem — now AND later. — The editorial board