State of the Bays: Water Quality Remains Pressing Issue

Dr. Christopher Gobler speaking during the State of the Bays talk on Friday. Stephen J. Kotz photo

Polluted ground and surface waters remain a fact of life here on eastern Long Island, but the good news is many efforts undertaken to improve water quality have been successful, Dr. Christopher Gobler, a marine biologist with Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, told the audience at his most recent State of the Bays talk, “Clean Water Is Life.”

Speaking at Stony Brook Southampton on Friday, Dr. Gobler said researchers have had success in battling nitrogen-driven algal blooms and other sources of pollution. But he also stressed that there are serious water quality problems continuing to appear.

Referring to a cluster of areas on eastern Long Island that have been found to be contaminated with perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, including Wainscott and Westhampton, Dr. Gobler pointed to a former Southampton Town dump site in East Quogue that has the highest levels of PFCs ever recorded, more than 11,000 parts per billion.

“I know this very well because actually this is only 500 feet from my private well,” he said. “My new reality is I am on bottled water.” He said he was still waiting to find out if his water was actually tainted.

“It has become real to me individually that contamination of water, be it from nitrogen or some other contaminants, is a real issue and even if it is not in your backyard, whatever is getting done is going to affect both our drinking water and our coastal water.”

With wastewater treatment systems the number-one cause of nitrogen loading in local bays, Dr. Gobler said threats to water quality will continue, if for no other reason than the fact that Suffolk County’s population continues to grow, with the county now larger than Nassau County, Manhattan, Staten Island or the Bronx. Nitrogen has reached “levels that are just untenable in many regions,” he said. And the issue is not just local. The Sustainability Institute in Europe has placed nitrogen-caused water pollution as its number-two stressor on human populations across the globe, only behind biodiversity loss, he said.

High nitrogen levels lead to higher levels of toxins in some algae that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, which kills both shellfish and the organisms that feed on them, Dr. Gobler said, pointing to a dieoff in 2015 of terrapin turtles in Peconic Bay and closures of shellfish grounds due to the presence of the toxins, including in places like Sag Harbor Cove.

Nitrogen also feeds the brown tide, which continues to destroy habitat and shellfish stocks, Dr. Gobler said, noting that the Nature Conservancy, which had placed large numbers of seed clams in local bays, saw those clams die in direct correlation to brown tide outbreaks over the past decade. “These brown tides are not going away,” Dr. Gobler said. “They have taken up what I call permanent residence.”

Although Hurricane Sandy created a new inlet into the Great South Bay, which has helped flush some areas, it has also led to increased levels of brown tide in others, Dr. Gobler said, pointing out that estuaries are complex and their health depends on more than improved water exchanges.

Rust tide also kills off fish and shellfish, Dr. Gobler said. Last year, when Southampton Town held its annual Snapper Derby fishing contest, it occurred during a rust tide outbreak, and only five fish were caught. “This has been proven over and over,” he said. “These rust tides move in and the fish move out.”

Rust tide thrives with higher temperatures, and data shows the Long Island region is now experiencing ideal temperatures for long and sustained rust tide outbreaks,” he said. “We are not going to stop temperatures from increasing in our lifetime,” Dr. Gobler said. “We can control nitrogen, though,” adding that efforts must be redoubled to control nitrogen pollution to hold rust tide in check.

Dr. Gobler said the good news is that efforts to reduce nitrogen loading have proven to be successful in reducing algae blooms, increasing oxygen levels and generally improving water quality. In 2013, after the Northport sewage treatment plant was upgraded, algal outbreaks fell off. Similarly, an effort to reduce nitrogen entering Long Island Sound has proven successful, he said.

His own lab has created models showing that that reducing nitrogen levels in Shinnecock Bay will result in fewer, and less severe, outbreaks of brown tide, and similar studies have shown that the combination of a municipal sewage treatment plant and increased use of alternative wastewater systems could reduce by 75 percent the amount of nitrogen entering Lake Agawam in Southampton Village, he said.

Dr. Gobler also pointed to both Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Governor Andrew Cuomo for making clean-water initiatives a priority that will begin to pay dividends in the not-too-distant future.