Climate Corner: The Sludge Report

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In East Hampton, Georgica Pond blue-green algae scum has a paint-like appearance and is dangerous to pets, humans and water fowl. Chris Clapp photo.
By Jenny Noble

One of the dangers of moving out to the East End from the city, is that you could find yourself trapped in a septic tank conversation (and yes, it’s really a thing).

Like most New Yorkers, I just assumed that waste water magically disappeared to some far away kingdom inhabited by abandoned pet alligators and our tax dollars. After 14 years of living out here, I still wasn’t exactly sure what a septic tank did. I didn’t get it until I made the connection between flushing the toilet and everything good in life: clambakes, body surfing, not getting cancer, and the ridiculous amount I earn renting out my house out in the summer.

The nitrogen pollution that outdated septic systems flush into our ground threatens almost every aspect of life on Long Island. Upgrading our septic systems is the smartest and most immediate way to protect it.

If you’re not a sewage aficionado, here’s how it works. Antiquated cesspools and septic tanks, which were never designed to remove nitrogen, allow untreated household effluent to leach into ponds, lakes, bays and the aquifer.

Here, nitrogen fuels algae blooms that starve estuaries of oxygen and sunlight, creating dead zones. This causes neurotoxins in shellfish, drives fish kills and degrades the wetlands that a host of wildlife depend on.

A common type of septic system along Gardiners Bay that becomes completely submerged during storms. Photo by Peter Topping.

Large algae blooms are referred to as “tides” — red, rust, brown, blue-green… now there’s even a mahogany tide. Pick your poison, this rainbow of toxic blooms is all becoming more pervasive and lasting longer each summer.

Imagine you’re a fish. If you suddenly can’t see where you’re going in this turbid pea soup and can’t breathe in hypoxic water, you either leave or die. If you live in a pond, swimming away could be problematic.

Eel grass, although not as glamorous as many endangered species, supports a world of marine creatures in the Peconic Estuary. This humble blade is a safe haven for crabs, scallops, baby fish, sea turtles and even sea horses. It releases oxygen into the water, and takes out excess nitrogen. Now algae blooms are blocking the sunlight that it needs to survive.

But ultimately, it’s not just the sea horse we endanger. It’s ourselves. When you’ve just pierced your ears and go for a swim, you shouldn’t be rushed to the emergency room with a flesh eating bacteria. Drinking water from the tap shouldn’t cause colorectal cancer.

Yet here we are. In Suffolk County, 74 percent of homes rely on old septic systems, each of which discharges an average of 40 pounds of nitrogen pollution per year. For homeowners in areas deemed “high priority” (i.e. a house near the water), this sludge can reach the surface water in a matter of hours. Truth be told, everywhere on this giant sand bar known as Long Island is high priority. Inland, wastewater may take longer to reach the bay, but it seeps directly into our drinking water within days.

Currently, 380,000 wastewater systems release nitrogen into the aquifer at concentrations 100 times higher than our coastal ecosystems can handle. Bryan McGowin, distributor for Fuji Clean, an environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment company, has a graphic way of describing neighborhoods where septic tanks sit just a few feet above the water table. “It’s like an outhouse. But without the outhouse on top.”

The advice, “Don’t ‘you-know-what’ where you drink,” may seem self-evident, but in Long Island, we don’t have a choice. Unlike most regions of the country, where water comes from rivers and lakes, we drink water from a single source aquifer that’s right under our feet (and everything else). And while many beach communities have sewers and treatment plants, Sag Harbor is one of the only East End municipalities with a treatment facility — the rest of the area relies primarily on individual septic systems.

Nitrogen’s effect on climate change is also a people problem. It degrades the coastal marshes that we need to buffer our homes against increasing land erosion, flooding and powerful storms. Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O sums it up, “If salt marshes go, so goes our shoreline.” In turn, when climate change causes sea level rise, sewage water mingles with ocean water. Yuk, right?

They say you can’t put a price on the natural splendor of living on the East end. Or can you? A 2013 study by The Nature Conservancy found that nearly half of Long Island’s GMP  (Gross Metropolitan Product) comes from businesses that rely on water. That’s $153 billion. Our estuaries support tourism, water sports, restaurants, marinas, fishing, farming and real estate. Even the trade parade depends on clean water.

Fishing, once the dominant industry here, accounts for only 52 full time jobs today on Long Island. Shellfish harvesting, or what’s left of it, is having to shut down in the summertime when algae blooms proliferate.

Whether for tourism or real estate, water is our gold standard. A waterfront location can more than double the value of a home. With over 500 lakes and ponds, 30 miles of freshwater streams, and some 1,170 miles of bay and ocean coastline, waterfront property is an enormous segment of the housing market on the East End. Tourists are also a species we can’t afford to lose. They’re the third largest contributor to economic output of all water-reliant sectors on the South Fork.

Toxic tides devalue this precious currency. People don’t like looking at murky water any more than fish like swimming in it. Breathing in the stench of algae as it decomposes, and stepping over piles of rotting seaweed and dead jelly fish piling up the beach is not fun.

Not a moment too soon, local municipalities are finally helping homeowners do the right thing. A few years ago, Suffolk County initiated a septic upgrade program to help subsidize the cost of installing new denitrification systems. “Between county money, state funding and the robust programs of Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island, you could get the whole thing paid for by the government,” says Stuart Lowry of The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton. “All you have to pay for is a little re-landscaping afterwards.”

Today is the best time to install this clean new system for two reasons. Soon they will be mandated. And when they are, there’s no guarantee that the grant and rebate money will still be available.

“Plus, you might as well go ahead and get one because it makes your house more valuable,” adds Corcoran Group broker Bonita DeWolf.

There’s a consensus among local scientists that if we act now, we can clean up the bays in as soon as five to 10 years. McAllister points out that we, “needed to do this yesterday,” but believes there’s hope. “Our waters are resilient. When we stop dumping junk into our bays, they recover.”

My wish for summer is to jump in Noyac Bay without giving it a second thought. And that upgrades becomes so ubiquitous, that septic tanks once again become a really boring conversation.

Resources:

reclaimourwater.info: (Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program) Everything you need to know about upgrading your system. Really useful.

LongIslandCleanWaterPartnership.org: Everything water and how to help. Tips on ways to keep our waters clean (beyond septic upgrades).

Peconic Baykeeper (peconicbaykeeper.org): Help restore oyster beds or just consult the map for which beaches are swimmable. So much to learn here.

Local Installers who help with everything nuts-to-bolts:

Bridgewater Environmental Service (https://www.bridgewaterenviro.com/)

Advanced Wastewater Solutions (https://www.awsli.com/)

Jenny Noble is a writer and mother who enjoys food, water and clean air.

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