A community that lives on the water came together on Friday to have a conversation about why it’s important to protect that resource and how it can be accomplished — and the role that everyday people can play in doing just that.
The latest in The Sag Harbor Express “Express Sessions” series of panel discussions at The American Hotel tackled water quality. Experts on the panel agreed the water supply on the East End is under siege from a variety of threats, including failing septic systems, polluted stormwater runoff, overfertilized lawns, the spraying of pesticides and more. Eventually, they said, pollutants find their way into both surface waters and drinking water.
“You have to protect these resources. They don’t protect themselves,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, one of Friday’s panelists. “This region suffers from death by a thousand cuts. We have a slow drip, drip, drip of contamination and pollution, whether from septics or development projects.”
Mr. DeLuca was joined by Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming; Kevin McAllister, the founding president of the nonprofit Defend H2O; Justin Jobin, the environmental projects coordinator with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Laura Tooman, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk; and Robby Stein, chairman of Sag Harbor’s Zoning Board of Appeals and a former village board trustee.
Threats to the Water Supply
According to Ms. Fleming, in the 1980s the Great South Bay supported 6,000 fishing and clamming jobs and produced half of the hard-shell clams consumed in the United States. But the first brown tide appeared in 1985, and the marine economy began to decline. Lately, it is not unusual to read news headlines warning bathers of dangerous blue-green algae in local lakes; warning fishermen against clamming or fishing in certain bays and other bodies of water; and advising homeowners in hamlets like Wainscott to have their wells tested for contaminants.
“We have a very rich history that is derived from our marine resources, and our marine resources are under threat,” Ms. Fleming said. “We live and work over our only water supply and there is no viable alternative to water. We are truly obligated to protect this supply.”
Mr. McAllister said his organization has been advocating for the elimination or more restrictive use of methoprene spraying for mosquitoes on the East End.
“There’s a host of biological life out there. Ultimately, methoprene disrupts their development,” he said. “There’s a recognition of the collateral damages that exist. In this day and age, we really have to back off of the use of pesticides.”
Mr. Stein cited development as a cause of contamination.
“Everything is interconnected,” he said. “As we build, we create runoff. We create structures that really disrupt the natural processes. We need to get rid of hard structures and think upland. It’s not just simple solutions like semi-pervious driveways and so on. We really need to look at what we’re building and where the water is going.”
Elena Loreto, president of the Noyac Civic Council, circulated petitions — and earned quite a few signatures — on the matter of the Sand Land mining permit settlement from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The Noyac Civic Council opposes the extension of the permit.
“We cannot rely on just Bob DeLuca, Bridget, Fred Thiele, everyone on that panel,” Ms. Loreto said. “We can do something. There might be a god, I don’t know. The court allowed us to have an extra two weeks’ time for public comment. … We demand an opportunity to voice our concerns and have our questions answered at a public forum immediately.”
Her comments were met with applause from the crowd.
Simon Harrison, who has his own local real estate agency, called for marine reserves to be established inside the bridge in Sag Harbor Cove, and for Sag Harbor to engage in “bayscaping” with oyster and clam seeding to encourage the cleaning of the waters.
“After 30 years of showing all kinds of waterfront, it would be nice to see the bottom of the bay more than only occasionally,” he said. “All water is connected — the rivers, the streams and the sprinkler systems, our drinking water and the tidal reach.”
Mr. DeLuca agreed, saying that putting out careful language about programs and initiatives is key in that process. “We have to change the language to get away from the stuff that causes people to immediately react,” he said. “It freaks people out and you can lose 10 years in the process. Stakeholders have to understand before the message goes live.”
Mr. Stein concurred, saying, “It also starts with education and perception. When I was a small child, we all threw the garbage out of the car. No one thought littering was a problem. We’re sitting here, but we need really younger activists to make change.”
From the audience, Kate Rossi-Snook, who runs the Concerned Citizens of Montauk water testing program, added, “We cannot rely on throwing more shellfish in the water. It’s fantastic — but also all of us have to change our behavior.”
Diane Hewitt of Noyac asked whether additives like Rid-X are effective or recommended for existing septic systems. Mr. Jobin’s response was an emphatic “no.”
“We don’t recommend the addition of anything into septic systems,” he said. “We don’t want to use these chemicals and additives that they sell. Ultimately, you need a biological process to treat the nitrogen.”
Ms. Hewitt also made a point regarding pesticides. “I pass many yards with yellow tags that have just been sprayed,” she said. “The DEC requires every pesticide applicator to put a yellow tag on, no matter what the pesticide is. It looks like there’s an awful lot being sprayed. … I think there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Mr. DeLuca said pesticides are “still a poison, whether it’s an organic or synthetic poison.”
“They don’t distinguish between organic versus synthetic,” Mr. McAllister said. “We’ve got to start to convert these landscapes back to native vegetation.”
Carol Williams and Jean Held, who belong to an organization called Friends of Havens Beach, brought with them jars full of sand, water and sludge from the beach, which Ms. Held displayed with pointed comments about the state of Havens Beach. That was where the dredge spoils were deposited following the county’s dredging of Long Wharf in 2017.
“Since the dredge, there are conditions down there which make it less appealing,” Ms. Held said. “We were told it might wash away. But wash away it isn’t. And where is it going to wash away to? What can we do to clean up the conditions of the sludge that’s there now?”
Ms. Tooman, who is a Sag Harbor resident, added, “it’s not just a water quality and sediment issue. I will not bring my 2-year-old to Havens Beach. We’ve been finding sharp metal pieces that are coming up. That’s a concern as well.”
But there were few answers to be had from the panelists.
“I don’t know the answer to what happened with the dredge,” Mr. Stein said. “I think the DEC determined it could go there. It was not when I was on the board. We had guarantees at the time it would be filtered.”
Ms. Fleming said she had asked a lot of questions about it.
“I’ve also requested additional screening, but the problem was brought to our attention after the contract period had passed, so the private contractor is not available,” she said. “We have to identify funding.”
Everyday People Can Pitch In
The panelists agreed it’s critical for citizens to take ownership of their water supply and take action to protect it. One important step, several experts agreed, is the installation of new, efficient residential septic systems, dubbed “innovative/alternative” systems, aimed at reducing the nitrogen produced by organic waste when it seeps into the environment. New York State, Suffolk County and both East Hampton and Southampton towns all have rebate programs in place to support homeowners who upgrade and who meet certain income qualifications. Some municipalities are even moving toward mandatory upgrades in certain regions.
“We need your cooperation to get these systems in place,” Ms. Fleming said. “It’s up to us to assist the homeowners and it’s up to homeowners to embrace the technologies.”
Mr. Jobin said he has worked on I/A systems for 19 years, joining Suffolk four years ago to manage the program.
“These systems to me are not innovative, new or experimental,” he said. “They are the norm and should be the norm in places like Suffolk County. The pro is they reduce nitrogen. The con is getting them accepted in Suffolk County.”
He explained the maintenance costs could cost up to $400 per year and the required electricity could cost as much as $270 per year.
“That’s still less than most sewer fees that are around $700 or $800,” Mr. Jobin said.
Ms. Tooman pointed out that people applying for grants could potentially get the entire cost of a septic system covered. She commended the county, state and towns “for realizing the science doesn’t lie and putting the money where the problem is.”
“We have to get the word out on a regional basis on the need to change out these systems,” Ms. Tooman said of the existing cesspool type septic systems. “They were designed to treat waste, but never designed to treat nitrogen. They are continually dripping nitrogen into our drinking water, our surface waters. Some of these systems are literally sitting in groundwater and are not functioning at all.”
A recent mix-up at the county level saw Comptroller John M. Kennedy issue 1099 tax forms to residents who received the grants despite the county previously having received legal advice that residents would not be on the hook to pay taxes on the grants.
“We have several months to work this out and we continue to be hopeful that the county comptroller will understand,” Ms. Fleming said. “We will do what we need to do to make this right so that the homeowners are not going to bear the burden.”
Mr. DeLuca said people need to “start thinking at the beginning of the process.”
“The ‘they’ is us at the end of the day,” he said. “We have to start thinking differently.”
A Septic Rebate How-To
Suffolk County maintains an aptly named website for its innovative/alternative septic system rebate program: “Reclaim Our Water.”
That’s the overarching theme of the municipalities’ efforts to encourage homeowners and business owners to install those septic systems. Six different types of systems have been successfully piloted and tested in Suffolk County, showing they have an impact on reducing nitrogen that comes from organic waste and harms water ecosystems, according to Justin Jobin, environmental projects coordinator with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.
“We do know these systems are successful in removing nitrogen,” he said. “It does so in places that aren’t feasible for sewers. We have multiple options — many tools in the tool box.”
Mr. Jobin said the cost of the innovative/alternative systems, abbreviated as “I/A” systems, averages about $22,000.
Southampton Town grants are available for up to $20,000, but your eligibility depends on your income. Those with a household income of $300,000 or less are eligible for up to 100 percent of the cost of the system, up to $20,000; those who earn $300,001 to $500,000 are eligible for 50 percent of the cost, up to $20,000; and those who earn $500,001 up to $1 million are eligible for 25 percent, up to $20,000. Those with a household income over $1 million are not eligible for rebates. Southampton requires I/A systems for all new construction projects and renovations that increase floor area by 25 percent or more in “high priority” areas near bodies of water or with shallow groundwater tables. The town’s Conservation Board and Environment Division also have the ability to require I/A systems.
In East Hampton Town, residents who earn less than $500,000 and who live in a designated “water protection district,” as well as those who qualify for affordable housing under federal Housing and Urban Development standards, are eligible for up to $16,000 toward the cost of an I/A system. Otherwise, grants are available for up to $10,000 for residents who meet those income requirements and who live outside of the water protection district.
Town money comes from the Community Preservation Fund (CPF), of which 20 percent will be set aside for water quality improvement projects each year for the life of the CPF, in accordance with a voter-approved referendum in 2017.
According to the Reclaim Our Water website, Suffolk County and New York State grants can be accessed on top of the town grants, up to $30,000, benefiting those who do not live in either Southampton or East Hampton towns but live in a municipality like Sag Harbor that requires I/A systems in many new construction and substantial renovation projects. Additionally, a financing option is available at a 3-percent fixed interest rate over 15 years from the Community Development Corporation of Long Island Funding Corp., through Bridgehampton National Bank, for those who can’t access a grant but still want to upgrade their septic systems.
In most cases, applicants must submit their most recent federal tax return, with Social Security numbers redacted, as well as additional paperwork to encumber the money; those seeking the grants must pay for the systems first, and would receive the grant after the work is completed, inspected and certified as compliant. County grant applications, in some cases, may also require proof that a house’s existing septic system has failed.
Applicants are also responsible for obtaining approvals from agencies such as the Department of Health Services, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and town regulatory boards. After a project is deemed eligible for a grant, the work must be completed within one year.
Southampton Town I/A homepage: southamptontownny.gov/1083/IA-OWTS-Rebate-Program
East Hampton Town I/A homepage: ehamptonny.gov/584/Septic-Rebate-Program
Suffolk County I/A homepage: reclaimourwater.info