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Suffolk Closeup: County getting serious about water

Environmentalist John Turner calls them “13 magic words.”

They are 13 words that have been added to a measure likely to be voted on in a countywide referendum in November that would amend the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act. The words are in a section of state legislation on what the fund for the act would finance.

The 13 words are: “… and projects for the reuse of treated effluent from such wastewater treatment facilities.”

Turner has long worked to have wastewater purified and returned to the underground water table rather than being discharged into surrounding bays, the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound.

Long Island — and Shelter Island — are dependent on underground aquifers as their sole sources for potable water. Under its “Irrigation Regulations,” Shelter Island’s government explains: “The Town of Shelter Island has only one freshwater aquifer from which to draw its groundwater, as it is cut off from fresh groundwater inflow from adjacent areas of the east end of Long Island. Shelter Island is low in topography, resulting in a shallow water table and a thin groundwater reservoir.”

To the west in Nassau County, the water table has lowered because 85% of Nassau is sewered and all its sewage treatment plants send wastewater into surrounding waterways. In Nassau, lakes, ponds, and streams that are the “uppermost expression of the aquifer system, have dropped considerably,” says Turner, former legislative director of the New York Legislative Commission on Water Resource Needs of New York State and Long Island and director of Brookhaven Town’s Division of Environmental Protection. He is senior conservation policy advocate at Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip.

Hempstead Lake now “is Hempstead Pond,” says Turner.

Suffolk County is 25% sewered with — until recent years — all its larger sewage treatment plants sending wastewater into surrounding waterways. The biggest, the Southwest Sewer District’s Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant in West Babylon, was built to send up to 30 million gallons a day of wastewater through an outfall pipe into the Atlantic.

In 2016, providing a model for change, the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant began sending treated effluent to the county’s adjoining Indian Island Golf Course. This has provided irrigation and fertilization for the golf course and an alternative to the discharging of wastewater into Flanders Bay.

A revised Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act was first advanced last year with a referendum proposed for Election Day 2023. But the Republican majority on the Suffolk Legislature voted against it because the enabling state legislation then earmarked 25% of the funding for sewers and 75% for high-tech Innovative/Alternative” (I/A) septic systems. The GOP majority sought a large percentage for sewers.

In the new revision the split is 50% for sewers and 50% for I/A systems. It is to now go before the Suffolk Legislature and State Legislature, where its sponsor in the Assembly is Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) and sponsor in the Senate Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), and, if approved, be subject to a referendum in Suffolk on Election Day 2024.

Other than for the change to a 50-50 division and those “13 magic words,” the measure remains otherwise as it had been last year. The funding for the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act would, as proposed last year, increase from the current 8.625 percent sales tax in the county to 8.75%, or l/8th of a penny on each dollar spent on purchases.

If the revised act gets legislative and voter approval, funds for projects for reuse of treated effluent could be used to implement the “Long Island Water Reuse Road Map & Action Plan” issued last year. The plan was created by Seatuck, the Greentree Foundation, Cameron Engineering & Associates and a Water Reuse Technical Working Group of 28 members. It proposes that treated wastewater be utilized for a variety of purposes, notably on golf courses, but also on sod farms, lawns and fields at educational and commercial sites. It lists treatment facilities and sites that could be used. Shelter Island is mentioned.

It declares: “The benefits of water reuse have long been recognized and embraced in other parts of the world,” and currently in the U.S. “approximately 2.6 billion gallons of water is reused daily.” But, it says, in New York “large-scale water reuse projects have been limited. There are a few projects in upstate New York and one on Long Island,” the “Riverhead reuse project.”

At a press conference last month announcing the new revision, Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine (R) repeated what he had emphasized as Brookhaven Town supervisor and a county legislator (during which for many years his district included Shelter Island), that in building sewers in Suffolk “let’s not pump the effluent out to the ocean or the Sound.”

Romaine, like Turner and other environmentalists, stresses a need for not only water quality but quantity. The sales tax increase is expected to raise in its first year $26.5 million for sewers and $26.5 million for I/A septic systems, said the legislature’s presiding officer, Kevin McCaffrey, at the press conference. The I/A systems have an average cost of $22,000 and, as of 2021, have been required by Suffolk County for new construction of a house in a non-sewered area or major expansion of an existing house.