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Councilman sounds alarm on climate change: Negative impacts faster here than rest of state

Climate change is accelerating on Long Island at a faster rate than in any other part of New York State. That was the urgent message voiced by Joyce Novak, Ph.D., executive director of the Peconic Estuary Partnership (PEP) at a recent day-long conference sponsored by the organization.

Councilman Jim Colligan was at the May 11 event held at Atlantis Banquets & Events in Riverhead, and gave a report at the May 23 Town Board work session. Mr. Colligan echoed Ms. Novak’s message that partnerships are critical to the success of addressing climate change.

“Cutting edge research” has been taking place on Eastern Long Island to identify threats and arrive at science-based solutions to deal with the problem, said Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Walter Mugdan.

Panelists discussed the strong link between water quality and climate change. Water temperatures have accelerated in the Peconic Estuary faster than experts predicted, resulting in decreased oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide, Mr. Mugdan said, defeating efforts to lower nitrogen levels that negatively impact water quality.

There are 28 federally recognized estuaries in the U.S., and bipartisan adoption of infrastructure legislation has increased the money available to them by $132 million, Mr. Mugdan said.

That makes more money available for installation of state-of-the-art I/A septic systems to help people who need upgrades, but lack funds to pay for their installation.

Mr. Mugdan cautioned that currently, money is in place, but won’t last forever, and should be put to work.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) said the New York State budget authorizes Suffolk County to include a referendum on the November ballot to implement a long-term plan to create a recurring funding source for wastewater infrastructure.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has said it represents a necessary investment in infrastructure to address water quality by incentivizing homeowners and businesses to upgrade failing or inadequate septic systems, and provide an opportunity to invest in new sewer systems.

If voters agree on the November ballot referendum, it is expected to raise $1.9 billion in tax revenue for drinking water projects until 2060, Mr. Thiele said. The money would be leveraged to obtain more federal and state funding to the county’s water quality projects, the legislator added.

In a panel discussion in which Mr. Colligan participated as PEP’s Local Government Committee chairman, he said one conclusion was the importance of being proactive, not reactive in adjusting to climate change, and applying protective strategies.

Emphasis needs to be on identifying climate “stressors and risks” and adjusting behaviors to lessen negative impacts.

There are more shoreline areas throughout Suffolk County than in any other part of New York State, and to maintain natural shorelines, bulkheading should be abandoned, Mr. Colligan said. Only Mashomack Preserve maintains most of its natural shoreline, he said, pointing out that Southold has totally banned bulkheads.

Another step,  already partially completed, is raising ramps at North and South ferries. Both companies have been proactive in the effort to deal with higher sea levels.

More needs to be done about roadway flooding during serious storms. Reel Point remains a challenge, the councilman said. Money was voted for a project to stop erosion there, but has not been forthcoming for an Army Corps of Engineers project.

Panelists at the PEP conference said all houses in Suffolk County needed to be inspected to ensure their septic systems are working effectively. If they were found to be defective, property owners should be required to have the nitrogen-reducing I/A systems installed.

On Shelter Island, Mr. Colligan estimated about 200 I/A systems have been installed,

Suffolk County’s population had exploded between 1950 and 2000 and sewage infrastructure hasn’t kept pace, Mr. Colligan said. Another concern, highlighted by officials at the Riverhead conference, was the use of toxic fertilizers going into waterways; more outreach is necessary to educate residents on the dangers.

“Climate change has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen,” Mr. Colligan told his colleagues on the Town Board.