An advanced septic system that removes nitrogen from water is...

An advanced septic system that removes nitrogen from water is installed at a home in Flanders in 2018.  Credit: Randee Daddona

More than a decade has passed since environmentalists began what became a long march toward a plan to clean up the degraded waters of Suffolk County. A solution — a slight bump in the county sales tax to be approved by voters in November — is now on the cusp of completion. Still, this is not a time to sigh with relief but to double down to ensure the proposal gets over the finish line.

History dictates the wisdom of continued concern when it comes to water quality.

From the beginning of the clean-water campaign, Suffolk residents could see the problem clearly: Drinking water was contaminated, fish and shellfish were dying, bays and harbors were fouled and choked of life. They could identify the principal culprit: nitrogen leaching from ineffective and outdated wastewater infrastructure. And experts knew what was needed: funding to expand sewers and replace the county's 360,000 failing cesspools and septic systems.

Given all that surety, it's a bit mind-boggling that it took so long to get to this point. Environmentalists, business and labor representatives, and elected officials had an agreement in hand last year before politics seemed to derail progress. That delayed action by a year on this festering problem. But all that is water (hopefully cleaner) under the bridge.

Last week, the State Legislature, led by Assemb. Fred Thiele and Sen. Monica Martinez, passed for the second straight year a bill giving Suffolk permission to put on the November ballot a referendum to raise the county sales tax by 0.125% to fund sewers and state-of-the-art septic systems.

Four things need to happen to get the proposal before voters. First, Gov. Kathy Hochul must sign the measure. Clean water is a goal high on Hochul's priority list. She needs to pick up her pen, and promptly. That's because No. 2 is a required county legislative hearing on the referendum scheduled for June 4. That would position lawmakers to formally sign off by the end of June, letting County Executive Ed Romaine — an enthusiastic backer of the referendum who was instrumental in helping all parties reach agreement — sign the bill in early July, the third step. The measure must be signed by early August to get on the November ballot, so there is wiggle room but not much given the speed at which the wheels of government grind.

The fourth action is a public education campaign to show why approval of the referendum is essential. With all participants in the negotiations now rowing in the same direction, a very convincing case can be made. The proposal sets up the new tax, extends an ongoing drinking water protection program, and converts a fund that stabilizes sewer rates, which all together will raise about $6.1 billion through 2060 for sewers, new septic systems, and land preservation, which also protects water.

It's taken too long, but the stars finally are aligning for clean water in Suffolk. 

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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