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Editorial: Suffolk's timely -- and critical -- plea for sewer funds

A picture of the breech in Bellport Bay

A picture of the breech in Bellport Bay shows the brown tide sweeping across the Great South Bay in record levels, threatening shellfish and eelgrass. (July 8, 2013) Read more. Credit: Doug Kuntz

Every so often a moment arrives, one you never saw coming, one not likely to come again. And you must seize the opportunity before it vanishes.

This isn't nearly as romantic as that sounds: We're talking about sewers and septic systems.

Suffolk County needs both. Federal funding for sewers dried up long ago, and they've been out of reach for Suffolk ever since. But now the county has a chance to turn its pipe dreams into reality.

Suffolk is seeking hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars, much of it earmarked for post-Sandy rebuilding, by using a clever pitch that ties better waste disposal to storm resiliency.

County officials are to be applauded for their initiative and ingenuity, and they have potential partners in Albany and Washington interested in dancing with them. But they need to realize this is not a stately waltz. It's being conducted at a techno pace, and County Executive Steve Bellone must stay energetic and focused.

The battle is well worth fighting, though it's difficult to arouse passions about sewers and septic systems. We understand that. For most of us, they're out of sight and out of mind. But at the same time, we care deeply about things that depend on sewers and septic systems. Like clean water. And economic development. And natural defenses against storms such as Sandy.

Simply put, sewers matter. And Suffolk has a major problem. Only 30 percent of the county is sewered, compared with more than 90 percent of Nassau. Many of the 360,000 homes not on sewers have failing septic systems. Suffolk is hemorrhaging nitrogen into its waterways, damaging shellfish and other marine life and causing an increasing number of red and brown tides.

Nitrogen also is a culprit in the disappearance of marshes, wetlands and coastal vegetation, which protect us from storms by slowing down waves and sapping their energy. That's the Sandy connection. But the sea grass in Suffolk's waters, for example, has declined from 220,000 acres in 1930 to fewer than 30,000 today. By reducing nitrogen, we can rebuild these natural defenses.

It's a solid argument to make for funding from a county that did not suffer catastrophic damage to its treatment plant, as Nassau did. Here's what's at stake:

Suffolk is seeking $750 million for new sewers in three areas in important river corridors: Mastic, Mastic Beach and Shirley (Forge River); Oakdale (Connetquot River); and Deer Park and North Babylon (Carlls River). That would remove 12,000 homes from cesspools and then allow cheaper sewer connections to neighboring residential areas. These homes are among the many in Suffolk that are too far apart to make sewering economically feasible. The corporation has developed a low-cost loan program that would allow Suffolk to front the money for new systems; residents would gradually repay the county.

Money for these initiatives lies in various pots. Some are federal dollars, but the state sets the priorities for what gets funded. A lot needs to happen to make it all work. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his staff must put Suffolk near the top of the state's list. Sen. Charles Schumer and other federal representatives must continue to lobby on Suffolk's behalf. And Bellone and company must stay aggressive and stay on message.

Bellone is saying all the right things -- that he understands the urgency, that another potential infusion of big money is not on the horizon, that this is a pivotal moment for the future of Long Island. Now he needs to get it done.