Op-Ed: ’13 Magic Words’ in Water Quality Act

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 Long Island’s underground water table rather than being discharged into surrounding bays, the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound.

Long Island is dependent on its underground water table, what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1978 designated as the “sole source aquifer” for potable water for people here.

In Nassau County, the water table has lowered because 85 percent of the county 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 based in Islip.

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

Suffolk is 25 percent 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.

However, 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 percent of the funding for sewers and 75 percent for high-tech nitrogen-reducing “innovative/advanced” septic systems. The GOP majority sought a larger percentage for sewers.

In the new revision the split is 50 percent for sewers and 50 percent for “innovative/advanced” septic systems. It now will go before the Suffolk Legislature and State Legislature, where its sponsor in the Assembly is Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor and sponsor in the Senate Monica Martinez of 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 the current 8.625 percent sales tax in the county to 8.75 percent, or l/8th of a penny on each dollar spent on purchases.

If the new 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 to 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 including in the Town of Huntington.

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’s new county executive, Ed Romaine, repeated what he had emphasized as Brookhaven Town supervisor and a county legislator, 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 “innovative/advanced” 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.

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