Do you want to take a dip in the Great South Bay to cool off? Odds are, you can’t do it at Sayville Marina Park. It’s closed more than every other day (53 percent). That’s according to a study of the Environment America Research and Policy Center, which follows the standards set forth in the Clean Water Act of 1972. A reader on Save the Great South Bay suggested a nicer beach near him in Blue Point, Corey Creek Beach. Corey Beach is closed 50 percent of the time. The same is true of East Islip Beach (50 percent) and Bay Shore’s Benjamin’s Beach (43 percent).
In terms of each closure, eight of the 10 worst beaches in New York State are in Suffolk County. And the Town of Islip as a municipality has more commonly closed beaches (four) than any other town in New York State! It’s a dubious distinction, to be sure.
Beach closures are part of the reason why, on Tuesday, July 30, Suffolk County officials announced a $4-billion wastewater plan. It will be rolled out in four phases over the next 50 years. It’s a 2250-pp plan the chair of Stony Brook’s Coastal Ecology School, Christoph Gobler, calls “incredibly strong and sound science.” The plan calls for replacing old cesspools and septic systems with self-standing nitrogen treatment systems. Using existing federal and state funding, some properties will be connected directly to sewers. Localists celebrate the news, while NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) are just as likely to fight it. Why?
Localists and NIMBYs look at beach closures and wastewater problems differently. Differences between them are rooted in geography and responsibility. NIMBYs care about their neighborhood. Localists care about their community. A polluted bay may bother a NIMBY, but unless that bay is in their backyard, it’s someone else’s problem. NIMBYs don’t want problems to worsen. But they don’t do anything to make problems better, either. Localists try to improve the quality of life. Localists also plan for the future, where NIMBYs don’t. They react.
Nearly 50 years since the 1972 release of the Clean Water Act, local waters aren’t getting any better. Nationally, 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illnesses are reported each year. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2014, 140 outbreaks of water contamination caused nearly 5,000 illnesses and two deaths. Such data is not readily available, yet you can identify daily beach closures and testing standards through the county: https://www.suffolkcountyny.gov/Departments/Health-Services/Environmental-Quality/Ecology/Beach-Monitoring-Program. The cause of beach closures in the Town of Islip and Suffolk County, however, is obvious.
We live on top of each other. And rather than treat our wastewater, we dump most of it in the ground. Over a million Suffolk County residents dump their wastewater into septic tanks and cesspools. We are talking about waters full of fecal, urine, laundry and dish matter. Nowhere else in the country are there as many cesspools concentrated in one area as Suffolk County. Nowhere. Even more of this waste, especially in low-lying areas, is now flowing into waterways because of rising seas. This is especially alarming when you consider this: we are also one of the few places in the nation that drinks the ground water beneath us. Untreated wastewater has nearly destroyed the Great South Bay. If unchecked, it may one day destroy our drinking water as well.
It will take “a touch of genius” and “a lot of courage” to substantially improve water quality. That’s what the Suffolk County Legislature appears to have in mind with the $4-billion plan. While they outlawed cesspools for new construction in the 1970s, a loophole for adding cesspools was closed on July 1. Now, when a cesspool breaks down, it must be replaced with either nitrogen treatment systems or septic-cesspool combined systems. Additionally, $331 million of previous tax money (from the 2013 federal and state budget) was approved by residents to construct sewers in Mastic and Babylon. That vote passed by a combined vote of 1256-460. After a failed sewer vote in Great River, Oakdale may receive $26 million pending a resident vote there this winter.
NIMBYs likely don’t want any part of the county’s new plan. Understandably, they fear water treatment will add to our already high cost of living. The county is considering a $75 annual fee to pay to improve water quality, after all. Many NIMBYs hope to kill two birds with one stone: fighting water treatment keeps the cost of living down and prevents more homes from being built. Who wants more traffic? They prefer to live with closed beaches. To them, the threat of contaminating drinking water is worth the risk. Or it’s something they cannot or do not want to think about.
Localists want clean water to drink and swim in. They want it for their neighbors, their communities, their children and for their grandchildren. Many will embrace the county’s new plan. Yet they expect to work with leaders to shape this plan.
The county Legislature aims to build more sewers. Many local environmentalists and civic leaders, however, see sewers as cost-prohibitive and unsustainable. Recognizing Long Island’s ground table is finite, many see decentralized, public micro-sewage plants as more sustainable; unlike sewers, micro-plants return recycled water back to the earth. And micro-plants can be scaled to manage existing treatment needs without opening the door to massive overdevelopment. Such development is unsustainable. It’s also what put us in this position in the first place.
Which one are you, a localist or a NIMBY? Many of my friends proudly tell anyone who will listen that they are NIMBYs. They can’t wait to retire so they can leave Long Island. Part of me agrees with them. In Florida, North and South Carolina, you could retire, have a nicer house, less stress and more money. Who doesn’t want that?
Me? I was born here and I will die here. Long Island has my heart. I am a localist. My goal is to try to help make Long Island a better place for my children and, God willing, my grandchildren. Leaving our wastewater problem to someone else simply isn’t a choice. It’s kicking the can down the road. That is why, beginning Aug. 14, Suffolk County is utilizing a 30-day public comment period for residents.
My dream is that one day, I will see my daughters—middle-schoolers now—at a Fire Island beach with toddlers of their own. One of them stands with her toddler in knee-high water. “Get ready! Get on the boogie board!” Swoosh! “And away you go!” Gleeful screams as my grandchild catches that very first wave. Just like my mom did for me. Just like I did for my girls. Long Island must never die. With more of us localists involved, it never will.