Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: Opening eyes

CHARLES TUMINO GRAPHIC

CHARLES TUMINO GRAPHIC

We live in a time when words such as “crisis” or “disaster” are common currency spent by the media and elected officials every day. It was ever thus.

But now the nine-alarm sirens sounded on every issue is more deafening because of instantaneous news coverage. It also seems there are more excitable people around, many with political agendas bellowing that their opponents’ policies are leading to cataclysms just around the corner.

But in April, when Town Engineer John Cronin described a water quality situation surrounding us that was so bad it would quickly get worse “without some radical changes,” he wasn’t over-egging the political soufflé.

The Reporter, in a two part series has listened to Mr. Cronin’s warning and looked into the issue and possible solutions.

The problem is dangerous pollutants, including nitrogen, that are not being controlled due to antiquated or faulty septic systems that are poisoning drinking water and flowing freely into surrounding surface waters such as ponds, creeks and bays.

Just one example of an approaching crisis in water quality was the release in the spring of a federally funded study by the Nature Conservancy on regional sea grass health. The study concluded that nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers is a major factor in “killing off sea grass populations throughout the coastal waters of southern New England and New York.”

Underwater sea grass meadows, the Nature Conservancy reported, provide a critical habitat for numerous species, especially shellfish.

But you don’t have to take the word of scientists at the Nature Conservancy, just ask your local baymen about the situation they’re facing.

A good first step was made when the town decided to map existing septic systems, to find out what is in the ground now, which no one seemed to know. The Building Department balked at doing the job, claiming it was too difficult, and so Mr. Cronin suggested an intern. But then money — all of $4,000 to pay for the intern’s work — seemed to be an enormous problem.

To Mr. Cronin’s credit and his belief in the seriousness of the problem, he told the Town Board to take the money from his own salary. A nonprofit, the Group for the East End, then stepped up to fund the project.

It’s a start, but how many municipal actions never make the finish line?

Ideas have to be in play and discussed publicly on what’s to be done. Local rebates to homeowners who upgrade their septic systems to operate safely are on the books in Southampton, albeit in an embryonic stage. Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr., who represents the Island, has floated an idea that the Community Preservation Fund, a tax that purchases open space in East End towns, be used to subsidize state-of-the art septic systems.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, back in April, described Mr. Cronin’s appearance before the Town Board to discuss the issues as “eye opening.”

We couldn’t agree more, and hope a crisis doesn’t morph into a disaster before action is taken.

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