By Alex Bakirdan
As the season for algal blooms begins this May, Suffolk County is working to tackle the nitrogen pollution issue at its root.
Excess nutrients like nitrogen are one of the main causes of blooms, and septic systems have been leaching the element through wastewater into Suffolk County’s groundwater for decades, according to the Peconic Estuary. Marine scientists say that the problem is only going to get worse unless it’s dealt with now.
“Rising sea levels are going to make this worse,” Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O and former Long Island baykeeper, said. “In 40 years time many of these coastal septic systems will be sitting in groundwater.”
Algal blooms are an explosion of algal growth in a water body that can result from an excess of nitrogen and some blooms are dangerous to the health of humans and the ecosystem. More than 360,000 septic systems and cesspools in Suffolk County homes contribute to nearly 70 percent of the total nitrogen pollution load in Suffolk County. The systems are designed to treat waste for bacteria and viruses, but they don’t eliminate nitrogen from the wastewater that’s seeping into the ground.
The nitrogen passes through the septic system, enters the groundwater through a series of perforated pipes called a leaching field and eventually seeps into lakes, ponds, rivers and the ocean, where excessive levels lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs).
Suffolk County’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative is working to replace the cesspools and septic systems with new Innovative Alternative (I/A) septic systems designed to treat the nitrogen. The I/A systems contain a new treatment unit that uses naturally occurring bacteria to reduce the nitrogen content in wastewater.
“The program is a grant program that features a county grant of up to $20,000, with a $10,000 base grant and two $5,000 incentives,” Justin Jobin, the Suffolk County Environmental Projects Manager, said. Jobin, who is the program manager for the Septic Improvement Program, spends much of his time going to different community events in places like East Islip and East Hampton to educate people on septic system replacements.
Part of the reason Suffolk County needed to implement the grant program is due to the cost of the newer systems.
“That’s really the main drawback of these I/A systems,” Peter Lelakowski, a representative from sanitation company Norsic & Son, said. “They cost quite a lot of money to install.”
The county program helps homeowners to get rid of their basic cesspools or older model septic systems.
“Suffolk is in the midst of trying to phase out the existing cesspools that don’t treat anything at all,” Linda Perlow, an officer for the Long Island Liquid Waste Association (LILWA), said.
So far the county’s Septic Improvement Program, a program under the Reclaim Our Water Initiative, has installed 92 I/A systems and is awaiting 112 installations, Jobin said.
Almost 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution can be attributed to the Long Island homes with septic systems or cesspools, according to the Suffolk County Government,.
“Nitrogen in the Long Island Sound contributes to excessive phytoplankton blooms, which are particularly troublesome in the summer months,” Matt Lyman, environmental analyst for the Long Island Sound Study, said.
These phytoplankton blooms, more commonly known as algal blooms, red tides, rust tides or brown tides, have been blooming all over the island with increasing frequency in recent years. In late 2017, the MightyMan Montauk Triathlon, a race in Montauk, had to cancel the swim portion of the competition due to a harmful algal bloom in the water. Last year, the event was moved to Navy Beach because of the same issue.
In 2018, 23 separate harmful algal blooms were reported in locations all over Suffolk County, including Fort Pond in Montauk and in Lake Ronkonkoma. The bloom in Lake Ronkonkoma, which first began in early May of 2018, forced Suffolk County to close the largest lake on Long Island to swimmers and waders.
Some phytoplankton blooms produce bacteria that can be harmful to humans and animals by causing vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation and other health issues. When produced, the bacteria can accumulate in shellfish tissue as they eat the algae, making them dangerous for human consumption.
Algal blooms are also harmful to marine life and can potentially devastate entire marine populations. “About ten years ago there was a die off of diamondback terrapins in Tuttle’s Creek, which is in Peconic Bay,” McAllister said. The terrapins had been eating mussels which were contaminated due to an algal bloom in the area.
The shellfish industry in Accabonac Harbor once thrived, supporting entire families. Now the industry is dwindling, with large swaths of water entirely closed to shellfishing.
“All along the southern part of the harbor, acres are closed to shellfishing because of the nitrogen pollution,” Francesca Rheannon, president of Accabonac Protection Committee, said.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed several large sections of the harbor for shellfishing and expanded the closed areas by 20 acres in 2015.
“As [the blooms] die and decompose they sink to the bottom which can lead to hypoxia in the water as well,” Lyman said. Hypoxia, which is when a body of water’s oxygen levels are low or depleted, can cause the death of fish, shellfish and other marine life and often prompts survivors to flee the area.
“Fifty years ago is when we really would’ve needed to get a grip on this,” McAllister said. “I’ve been sounding the alarm on this since 2005 or six after what I saw at the Forge River with the rust tide and they’re finally starting to do something about it.”
“The first hurdle we had to get over was just getting people to understand that they actually needed to get their septic systems pumped,” Kate Rossi-Snook, an environmental advocate for Concerned Citizens for Montauk, said. “People, some who had owned their homes for seventeen years, had never had their systems pumped. The systems are supposed to be pumped once every three to five years.”
Although not many residents know they need to replace their septic system, the program is still plenty popular.
“We’re currently getting about 60 applications per month,” Jobin said. “Our capacity is about 80 per month so we’re not trying to advertise too much right now.”
The program originally only had access to $2 million per year, which would have added up to about 200 grants. But the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) stepped in to make more money available for eligible citizens, Jobin said.
“The state made available ten million per year out of the 15 million per year for the whole state,” Jobin said. “Once we received the state money, we made changes to the eligibility restrictions. That went into effect in January of this year.”
Applications are prioritized based on the home’s proximity to groundwater reservoirs, with houses within zero to two years of travel time from leach field to surface water receiving the highest priority.
The entire process of replacing all of the systems in the county could take twenty years or more if the county fully committed to it today, Mcallister said.
“We’ve got real shit to deal with,” McAllister said.