Editorial: Water Quality Board needs professionals

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At the recent public hearing on a law to authorize town-funded rebates for homeowners who upgrade cesspools or conventional septic systems to nitrogen-reducing systems, Gordon Gooding said the resolution was shortsighted and would prove to be ineffective.

Mr. Gooding, a steady critic of the rebates and the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board, which advises the Town Board on funding clean water projects, said there should be revolving, no-cost or low-cost loans, not outright grants.

At the public hearing, he said the way the program is structured with limits set by the state on how town money can be used, it won’t be able to provide the intended rehabilitation and protection of the Island’s water supply.

Mr. Gooding may or may not be right on that score, but there’s no doubt he’s dead-on when he called for hiring professionals to guide the members of the Water Quality Board in making decisions. The board members are all intelligent, capable people, but they have admitted they lack the technical knowledge to assess applications for rebates.

Among the criteria for receiving a rebate is inclusion of specific numbers that show how installing a new septic system will reduce the nitrogen content in the water supply.

At the outset, with only a few applications so far, the board can rightly assume that any upgrade will be an improvement over existing outdated and, in some cases, broken septic systems. But can the board accurately assess specifically how the proposed new system will provide a reduction in nitrogen? Members would be the first to agree they lack that ability.

If applications begin to come in at an accelerated pace and it becomes necessary to recommend funding for some homeowners and turning down others, will the board have the ability to make judgments about which to fund?

Neighboring towns have staff to assist with calculating the worth of new septic technologies, while Shelter Island has lost its one qualified engineer when John Cronin resigned. Mr. Cronin will be providing some engineering assistance without charge on existing projects, but he’s not going to have time to assess the various applications.

Hiring Southold Town Engineer Michael Collins on a part-time basis isn’t going to fill the vacuum, either.

A town with no depth to its staffing can’t expect to effectively tackle the assessments of septic system applications, much less the more involved applications that could come as the Water Quality Board picks up other areas for which town money could be used.

The town has put these well-intentioned volunteers in a position where they are certain to fail unless they receive the technical help they need.

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