Suffolk Closeup: Long Island water 101, part 2

BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor.
BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor.

Sewage treatment plants all over Long Island are discharging wastewater into bays, creeks, rivers, the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. This reduces the quantity of our freshwater supply, which comes from the underground water table.

On Shelter Island, the Shelter Island Heights Wastewater Treatment plant discharges into Shelter Island Sound. With Shelter Island’s south shore within eyesight, the Sag Harbor Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges into Sag Harbor Bay. The Greenport Village Sewage Treatment Plant discharges into Long Island Sound.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Of the nearly 200 sewage treatment plants in Suffolk County, most perform “tertiary” treatment of waste — extensive cleansing — and the effluent then is “recharged” back into the ground. This way there is no water loss. But most of these are small, private plants, mainly built for housing developments.

But the larger sewage treatment plants in Suffolk send wastewater into waterways. This is not unlike the way sewage was handled centuries ago in Rome, home of sewering. It doesn’t have to be that way — even with bigger plants.

Take the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant that last year began sending treated effluent to the adjacent county golf course instead of into Flanders Bay, which was the practice for years. “The microbiology of the soil is pretty aggressive and will render the effluent harmless,” noted Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a fourth-generation farmer with a degree in plant science. The change in Riverhead, he said, “really sets an example.”

Or consider Suffolk County’s sewage treatment plant at its Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. The plant does tertiary treatment and recharges the effluent back into the ground. The Village of Westhampton Beach is now in the process of establishing a sewer district to be hooked into the Gabreski plant

Long Island naturalist John Turner of the Seatuck Environmental Association, points to neighboring Nassau County where, he says, all sewage treatment plants “discharge into coastal waters.” As a result, there has been a drying up of streams and creeks and the lowering of lakes because of the loss of quantity in the water table. Further, saltwater intrusion into the set of aquifers that comprise the water table has destroyed the potability of some of Nassau’s fresh water.

In Suffolk, the sewage plant discharging the greatest volume of wastewater into a waterway is the county’s Bergen Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Babylon, built to send 30 million gallons of wastewater a day through an outfall pipe for the county’s Southwest Sewer District into the Atlantic Ocean.

There is now a drive by the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone to expand the boundaries of the Southwest Sewer District. Mr. Bellone has also been pushing for piping the wastewater from the proposed massive Ronkonkoma Hub, to the Bergen Point plant, miles away, and out to sea. The Hub is to be a $600 million complex of 1,450 apartments and many offices and retail stores.

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine has urged a sewage treatment plant instead, with recharge for the Hub.

“We don’t need to pump wastewater out into bays and the Long Island Sound and ocean,” said Mr. Romaine. “Sewage treatment plants should recharge wastewater back into the ground. We need to be concerned about the quantity of water as well as quality.”

Although the county’s Bergen Point Treatment Plant sends the most wastewater out into a waterway, other culprits include: Patchogue Sewage Treatment Plant which discharges into the Patchogue River; Port Jefferson Sewage Treatment Plant which discharges into Long Island Sound; Village of Northport Wastewater Treatment Plant, which also discharges into the Sound.

Mr. Turner is seeking a “consensus on the island for an islandwide water reuse feasibility study” that could be a “blueprint and roadmap for the implementation of water recycling programs.” He states that “wastewater has been reliably and safely used” in states including California and Florida, as well as in the Southwest.

Indeed, Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder notes that in Palm Harbor, Florida, west of Tampa, where she has a vacation home, treated wastewater is pumped to residents and businesses for irrigation and other uses. “I water my lawn there with the reclaimed water,” she says. “It’s a win-win.”

Pinellas County Utilities, which operates the William E. Dunn Water Reclamation Facility, points out on its website that the “reclaimed water” is carried in a “separate reclaimed water pipe system …identified by the color purple.”

An alternative to discharging into Shelter Island Sound for the Shelter Island Heights Wastewater Treatment Plant that has been “in discussion for 15 years,” is the possibility of sending its treated effluent to Goat Hill where it would be used as fertilizer on the course, said Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Shelter Island Heights Property Corporation, which owns and operates the plant.

An engineering study has been done and a “pricing” estimate made, Ms. Lagudis told me. “The cost turns out to be enormous.” Still, she said, the corporation has continued to pursue the possibility and has been “working together with the town” and its Grants Committee on it.

“We want to be forward-thinking,” she said.

Meanwhile, hooray for purple pipes. Hooray for reclaimed water. The quantities in the underwater tables below Long Island and Shelter Island would benefit by the use of reclaimed water.