Calarco: Suffolk County has a wastewater problem

Rob Calarco, Suffolk County Presiding Officer
Posted 2/6/20

This isn’t news to anyone, because it’s an issue we have been grappling with for decades. The cost of our inaction, however, is growing, and if we do nothing, the consequences will be …

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Calarco: Suffolk County has a wastewater problem


This isn’t news to anyone, because it’s an issue we have been grappling with for decades. The cost of our inaction, however, is growing, and if we do nothing, the consequences will be devastating.

Wastewater from our homes and businesses is loaded with harmful nitrogen. Every time you flush the toilet, you are injecting nitrogen into our groundwater. That nitrogen makes its way into our surface waters and eventually into the Great South Bay. As the nitrogen concentration in the water grows, it can lead to all sorts of problems. Harmful algae blooms thrive in nitrogen-rich environments, destroying local shellfish and causing fish kills. As a result, beaches must be closed to residents because of the health and safety risks. We have been living with the consequence of this problem for decades. Water goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Long Islander, but for nearly 40 years our marine industries have been on life support. We have made strides in more recent times to revive those trades, but those trades will never properly return to their former glory unless we address the root cause of the problem.

Historically, Suffolk County has relied on cesspools to collect waste generated by homes. These do nothing to inhibit nitrogen leaching into the ground. In 1973 Suffolk County passed new laws that required new construction to install septic systems. While these newer systems reduced some nitrogen leaching, they still typically discharged 40 pounds of nitrogen per year. Furthermore, the law allowed existing homes to replace their failing cesspools with new cesspools. The reality is 43 years after the law was passed, more than 252,000 homes are still using cesspools; only 112,000 homes use septic systems. In 2018 Suffolk County updated the law to require that all homeowners that are replacing a cesspool install a septic system. It’s a step in the right direction, but only a small one.

There are solutions to the problem, but they will require effort from everyone to be successful. As population density grows and sewers become more economically viable, we need to build them wherever we can. In Patchogue, I helped secure $26 million to sewer the south end of the village. Mastic and Babylon are undergoing similar projects that will connect hundreds of homes to sewers. It’s a great start, but we have also seen other communities reject these kinds of projects. If we fail to take the steps necessary, then the problem will continue to worsen.

Sewers are great in certain areas, but the costs are prohibitive, and even with major expansions, sewers still only cover about 25 percent of households. New technologies are coming onto the market that offer us an opportunity to address the problem for many more homes. Innovative and Alternative Nitrogen Removal Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (I/A OWTS) reduce the amount of nitrogen leached into the ground by 60 to 70 percent. For hundreds of homes, this is our best way forward to address the problem.

A typical system is still too costly for most middle- and working-class families: between $15,000 and $30,000. Suffolk County recognized this as well as the fact that sewers are more costly, so we created the Septic Improvement Program, which provides up to $30,000 in grants to homeowners who install I/A OWTS. The program has been in place for two years now, and we have seen some new systems go into the ground, but not nearly enough to combat the scale of the problem. We need our residents to step up to be a part of the solution.

For Suffolk County’s future, I encourage all residents to visit www.reclaimourwater.info to get more information about the Septic Improvement Program. I will also be hosting an informational seminar at Longwood Library on March 24 at 7 p.m. Water is Long Island’s heritage, and if we fail to protect it, then we are depriving future generations of Long Islanders their birthright.


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