The Long Island Sound.

The Long Island Sound. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

It's been a long haul since environmentalists began sounding the alarm on the impact of nitrogen in our waters. Obstacles were many. Opposition was fierce. But now officials at all levels of government are on board and good work is underway to improve water quality on Long Island.

It's critically important to Long Islanders. Our waters define us.

Many thorny issues, however, still must be resolved. Science must drive the effort; politics must be kept at bay. Persistence and coordination must match enthusiasm.

Key to the campaign is the nitrogen reduction plan being developed by a group of local and state officials. This panel will identify Long Island's many watersheds, measure the nitrogen present in each, and set reduction targets for each that will restore water quality. Those numbers should be ready by early 2017.

On a parallel track, Suffolk County, where more than 60 percent of homes are not sewered, is planning a major sewer expansion along the South Shore. It also is testing new, high-tech nitrogen-reducing sanitary systems for homes in areas that cannot be sewered. This is a big deal. There are 209,000 cesspools in environmentally sensitive areas that the county says should be replaced.

This also is where things get complicated. Certifying new systems and devising regulations for installing, inspecting and maintaining them is one thing. And the county knows it must beef up the health department to make it work. But Suffolk officials also must find ways to persuade homeowners to switch to the new systems and identify strategies to pay for them. They won't be cheap. Many will need help or incentives to convert.

To accomplish this, Suffolk is considering a countywide sanitary district, a smart concept that would let it offer low-interest financing and/or grants to homeowners to replace cesspools. But East End officials are talking about forming their own district, separate from the county's. That might make more sense, given the area's unique issues, such as a very high percentage of septic systems and proximity to bodies of water. And the East End has a unique source of revenue -- each town's Community Preservation Fund, generated by a tax on real estate sales. Designed to preserve land, some of the money now can be used to improve water quality, thanks to state legislation permitting the change that was shepherded by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). Suffolk and East End officials must coordinate their efforts. Regional problems like this are best addressed with solutions devised regionally.

As for Nassau, the vast majority of which already is on sewers, the county must get things right at its Bay Park treatment plant and agree to fund its share of an ocean outfall pipe and a nitrogen removal system to restore the badly damaged western bays.

The big picture is encouraging. The right things are being said and done. The journey to correcting one of Long Island's most vexing problems will be a long one, but it's good to be moving forward at last.