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How’s The Water: May 30, 2012

Long Island sits over its water supply which is being contaminated by septic systems, pesticides and fertilizers

“How is the Water?” is a question people are asking Island-wide and nationwide. Nitrogen pollution is an increasing threat to the quality of our drinking water, and the water in our harbors and bays. Environmentalists, scientists and government leaders came together last month to discuss “Water We Going to Do?” The event was coordinated by the Group for the East End (GEE), Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), the Long Island Pine Barrens Society (LIPBS) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), with support from the Rauch Foundation (RF).

Bob DeLuca of GEE reviewed the findings of the Suffolk County Health Department study of the water supply. The decline of water quality is commensurate with the rise in population since the 1980s, with increasing contamination from septic systems, pesticides and fertilizers. Groundwater takes approximately 20 years to filter through the ground and enter the harbor and bays, so the problems we are seeing now are the consequences of actions taken long ago.

The collapse of the shellfishing industry in the Great South Bay is also linked with a decline in water quality. Dr. Christopher Gobler of SUNY Stony Brook and Marci Bortman of TNC spoke of the emergency shellfish closures on the East End and of Northport Harbor. Their conclusion is that the coastal bays and harbors will improve, stabilize or worsen depending on what actions are taken now. Inappropriate use, or overuse, of pesticides is also degrading water quality.

In her remarks at the conference, Adrienne Esposito, CCE executive director, stated “In order for Long Island to be sustainable we urgently need to safeguard our groundwater and provide more advanced treatments for our wastewater. We should not sit idle while the quality of our drinking water declines and our bays become increasingly degraded. The conference was designed to bring together scientists, elected officials, environmentalists and community members so that we can begin a process to protect Long Island’s waters.”

Unlike Nassau, most of Suffolk County is not sewered, and homeowners have cesspools or septic systems, many of which are on small lot sizes of a quarter acre or less. Contamination from septic systems will be an expensive and logistically difficult problem to solve, and will probably require some kind of federal assistance. However, to do nothing is unacceptable. Continued degradation of our water will threaten our shellfishing industry, recreational and commercial fishing, tourism, and the businesses that depend upon them. Our local economy, jobs, and quality of life are at stake.

Lee Koppelman, currently the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies, who was a former Suffolk County planner, said that for 120 years the aquifers under Long Island were pristine, and in the past 50 years we have degraded those aquifers to a point of grave concern. He stressed that anyone on a public water supply is receiving drinking water that is safe to drink.

A poll of 600 voters, evenly distributed between Nassau and Suffolk County, showed that 72 percent are very concerned about our water supply, and that chemical and waste discharges from industry and polluted runoff into bodies of water are the most serious threat to water quality on Long Island. There is also an overwhelming consensus among those voters that local government should spend more money in efforts to clean up and prevent pollution of groundwater, rivers, lakes and bays.

Nassau County has not done a comparable analysis of the groundwater, and has actually stopped funding the monitoring of wells which was conducted by the United States Geological Survey (after 70 years).