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Opinion: Suffolk can't handle more sewage

Red tide seen in Little Peconic Bay on

Red tide seen in Little Peconic Bay on July 30, 2010 Photo Credit: Photo by Doug Kuntz

R. Lawrence Swanson is director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute and Christopher J. Gobler is associate professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.


Suffolk County is wisely assessing problems with sewage disposal and its capacity to manage that waste. But it's time to go beyond this analysis and ask what the ultimate capacity is for sewage within the county.

Most of the 1.5 million people living in Suffolk are dependent on cesspools or septic systems for sewage disposal. Some 30 million gallons per day -- from 350,000 people -- are discharged to marine waters from sewage treatment plants. The balance of Suffolk's sewage -- more than 100 million gallons per day, from 1.2 million people -- is discharged to the ground by treatment plants or septic systems.

Many of the septic systems and cesspools are old or poorly maintained, and they leach nutrients and other more exotic chemicals into the upper glacial aquifer. Sewage treatment plants discharging to this aquifer and marine waters remove some of these contaminants, but they aren't designed to remove them all. If the plant is a private facility, it may not be operated well anyway.

Septage and sewage discharged from these systems create negative impacts on our waters. Just look at the severe summertime oxygen depletion of the Forge River, which is driven primarily by nitrogen leaching from cesspools and septic systems. Great South Bay and Shinnecock Bay often experience nitrogen-fueled brown and red tides, which have strong, negative effects on sea grass beds and clam populations.

Our upper glacial aquifer is, for practical purposes, no longer available as a source of drinking water on Long Island because of pollution by septic systems, treatment plants, past and present agricultural activities, and industrial waste. While it has been long assumed that the Magothy aquifer would remain pristine for future drinking water use, county health officials found that nitrogen levels in this aquifer jumped by 200 percent between 1987 and 2005, exceeding those found in the upper glacial aquifer in 1987.

It's easy to say that these issues will be resolved by requiring sewerage with connections to newly constructed treatment plants, expanding existing plants, or requiring replacement of existing septic systems with improved systems that can remove nitrogen. But there will still be the same volume of sewage discharged to the same ocean or bays, as well as to the upper glacial aquifer. And how would all these new facilities be paid for?

It may well be that Suffolk's capacity to handle sewage has reached its limit. We must begin to consider that the county simply cannot handle an increase in population, given the current sewage treatment technologies that are deemed safe by the Department of Health Services.

In Lee Koppelman's 1964 book, "A Plan for Open Space in Suffolk County," he points out that Long Island is totally developable. There are no mountain ranges or swamps to constrain build-out and limit population growth. And so it has been. With the exception of saving the Pine Barrens and the county's excellent open space programs, we are built out.

But while Suffolk is essentially fully developed, there are still efforts to increase density -- and those can't be supported. Smart growth and workforce housing programs can redistribute population more intelligently in the future, but they still encourage population growth. And they haven't specified how the domestic waste from such growth can be accommodated.

Actually, there are "Limits to Growth" -- as postulated in 1972, when the authors of that classic book considered population and pollution as two of the contributors to a collapsing society. Suffolk County, given its soil characteristics and its coastal waters, has reached that limit when it comes to sewage. We are saturated.


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