Republicans in the Suffolk County Legislature are playing politics with our water quality.
So many of us choose to live in our community because of the beauty and recreation that our local waters provide. Yet we have become all too aware in recent years of more frequent beach closures stretching from Cold Spring Harbor and Northport to the Peconic and Great South Bays due to bacteria in our water that can be harmful to our health. We have all heard of the algae blooms in our waters that have serious impacts on our human and marine life. Northport Harbor has suffered the most intense red tide algae blooms in the Northeast US.
The Suffolk County Legislature has a unique opportunity to reverse this alarming trend with a window of access to state and federal funding to aid in that work, yet they appear to be stalling, if not completely squandering this opportunity. As the senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy has stated, “The longer we wait to fix our water quality, the longer it will take and the more expensive it will be.”
The main cause of our poor water quality here on Long Island is nitrogen. Excess nitrogen in our waters causes overgrowth of harmful algae blooms which deprive marine life of the oxygen they need to survive and can sometimes release toxins that are harmful to touch or ingest. The main sources of this nitrogen are the cesspools and septic systems most of us still use. Countywide there are 380,000 households that rely on these outdated systems that do not treat waste to remove nitrogen. The nitrogen seeps into our groundwater and after rain and storm events, flows directly into our waterways. Climate change only increases the frequency of these storms and the urgency of this issue.
Children are particularly vulnerable to certain types of harmful algae blooms called blue green algae because of their play activities and are exposed to more water relative to their body weights than adults are. Pediatricians like myself are familiar with the harmful effects these substances can have on children including rash, skin irritation, swelling and sores, respiratory illness, fever, headache and neurological symptoms. Suffolk has more lakes with blue green algae than any other county in New York.
Understanding the urgent need to address the nitrogen contamination of our waters, County Executive Bellone worked with the State to give Suffolk the opportunity to partner and fund the replacement of old polluting systems with newly developed clean water treatment systems across the County. Suffolk would raise its share of funding to help homeowners replace their old cesspools and septic tanks by increasing sales tax by 1/8 of a penny, essentially an extra 12 cents on a $100 purchase.
The funds Suffolk raised would then be leveraged to obtain billions of dollars in grant funding from the State and time sensitive Federal funding which is accessed on a first come first served basis and requires significant local matching monies before they can be secured . 75% of the tax revenue would finance clean wastewater septic systems to replace outdated leaky cesspools and the remainder would be used to create sewer systems where appropriate, like Huntington Station and Mastic. Any sales tax increase must be presented to voters as a ballot referendum on Election Day; There has historically always been wide public bipartisan support to protect clean water and 2/3 of Long Islanders support the Water Quality Restoration Fund which we have the opportunity to create.
Shockingly, the Legislature has decided to hold off on allowing the establishment of the water quality fund to come before the people for a vote this November, jeopardizing access to further funding to sustain this work for decades to come and stalling the work that needs to done to reverse the nitrogen pollution of our waters and prevent its potential health effects on our children and families.
The decision to pump the brakes on this project which has been years in the making is simply inexplicable and inexcusable. It has wide bipartisan town, state and federal government support as well as the support of scientists and environmentalists and the union workers who would benefit from the tremendous job creation it would lead to. We must urge our County legislators to do better and to put our environment and our well being first and reconsider their decision to not allow the people to speak to this issue on Election Day.
Eve Meltzer Krief MD
Candidate for Suffolk County Legislature LD 18