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Opinion: Suffolk can protect water & grow

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Jim Morgo is chairman of the Suffolk County IDA and economic development coordinator for the Town of Brookhaven. Pio Lombardo is president of Lombardo Associates, a Boston-based environmental engineering firm specializing in alternative wastewater systems.

Now, when our nation and region are focused on the critical need for economic expansion and job growth, is not the time for Long Islanders to declare that Suffolk County should grow no more. One has only to look at the nation's rust belt to see the misery that decreasing populations and economic contractions bring.

In a Newsday Opinion essay last week, R. Lawrence Swanson and Christopher J. Gobler of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences raise provocative and important questions of growth, wastewater management and water quality in Suffolk. We agree that Suffolk has problems because less than 30 percent of the county's 900 square miles has operating wastewater treatment facilities, and because some sewers are not operating at the standards needed to protect our ground and surface waters. But we don't think that Suffolk should raise the white flag of economic surrender.

Technological advances and human ingenuity are not static, and they can overcome the wastewater-population-water quality balance dilemma. Viable, proven solutions exist today, after rapid advances over the past 20 years. And more improvements are expected in the near term.

A significant portion of Suffolk is saturated with conventional septic systems, resulting in adverse aquatic ecological conditions. This situation does -- and should -- limit growth. This "limit" is due to the use of centuries-old techniques no longer adequate for today's Suffolk. The immediate need is to adopt 21st century wastewater technological and management approaches that remove nitrogen and other contaminants, minimize wastewater production, and maximize water reuse. Economic development and especially redevelopment can stimulate needed improvements -- and at a reduced cost because of economies of scale.

Smaller wastewater systems, as well as groundwater treatment techniques, have demonstrated the ability to protect water quality comparably to the most sophisticated centralized wastewater treatment plants -- but at a lower cost than conventional sewerage systems and on an easier to implement scale. These alternative systems are being evaluated by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services with recommendations expected in the coming months.

While we live in an environment with an abundance of water, treated-water reuse for non-potable purposes, such as toilet flushing and lawn-watering, is a viable technique to reduce wastewater generation to our aquatic environment. This kind of approach has been practiced in Manhattan high-rises for years. The additional cost to produce reusable water is relatively low and can be part of industrial and commercial development. Nitrogen-reduction requirements for new developments and other policies could help correct decades-old and continuing water-quality problems in Suffolk's bays and rivers, while encouraging economic development.

The charge for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's newly created Long Island Regional Economic Council is to leverage Long Island's many assets to create economic growth and new jobs. Suffolk's inadequate wastewater treatment will be a challenge for the council, but it is one that can and must be met.

The public sector should partner with the private sector and provide the incentives to meet the environmental and economic challenge to replace our aged infrastructure. Wastewater problems are not unique to Suffolk: Florida, Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay have large areas that use conventional septic systems and as a result have degraded water quality. Suffolk County should seize this growth opportunity to foster and encourage innovation with national implications.

Any limit to growth and economic sustainability exists solely in our commitment to addressing the wastewater challenge. The tools exist to meet it.

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