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Despite cost, war on nitrogen pollution must be fought

A septic system being that uses filtration and

A septic system being that uses filtration and aeration is installed at the home of Dorothy Minnick and Robert Quick in Flanders in February. Credit: Randee Daddona

As Suffolk County wages war on nitrogen in our waters, there are important things to keep in mind:

  • This is a long process. The problem was created over decades, and it won’t be solved overnight.
  • Everyone — from elected officials and community leaders to builders, academics and homeowners — understands the urgency. We all have seen the multicolored algal blooms, the startling reductions in shellfish, and the loss and degradation of wetlands. We know that two-thirds or more of the nitrogen in most of our bays and harbors comes from homeowner septic systems.
  • There is an achievable solution. It involves a combination of sewers in places where they make sense, and high-tech alternative septic systems in places where sewers are not practical.
  • Suffolk has made steady progress on its plan. But it will not be without glitches. Some of those were detailed in a recent Newsday-News 12 Long Island report.

But here’s the important thing: These are not insurmountable obstacles. They were not unexpected. And they cannot be fodder for an argument to stop the process and undo the progress.

Making change on Long Island is rarely easy. It’s even harder when that change is expensive.

That’s the major source of controversy in Suffolk’s plan. Most of the 360,000 homes in the county served by inefficient cesspools or septic systems cannot be placed on sewers. It’s way too expensive. The individual high-tech systems the county has been testing to replace the failing systems are far cheaper but still pricey — as much as $23,000 per unit.

Finding adequate incentives to help homeowners make the switch, and determining who has to swap out their systems and when, is critical. Suffolk offers a package of grants and loans — the towns of East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island have similar grant programs — but the county likely will need to tweak its plan to make switching more affordable.

But the biggest issue is how to pay for such a program. It’s clear Suffolk needs a recurring source of money. The responsibility to find one falls on elected officials from local, county and state governments. They must collaborate on tough but necessary decisions. High costs are not a reason to do nothing; they’re a reason to devise a plan to reduce those costs. It’s time for real leaders to step up. Inaction is not an option.

A new report on nitrogen levels and origins in every watershed area on Long Island is due this month; that will help Suffolk prioritize areas for action. The State Assembly has passed a smart bill sponsored by Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would help reduce nitrogen that reaches surface waters from fertilizing lawns; the Senate should get behind it, too. Suffolk continues to test new wastewater treatment systems, technology continues to improve, and costs should come down.

Long Islanders have seen what happens to our precious waters when we put raw sewage in the ground. We all know the solution, too. Now we have to figure out how to pay for it.