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Newsday Editorial December 2, 2011
Sweeney: Unless we act, LI water is at risk
Published: December 2, 2011 5:41 PM
By BOB SWEENEY
Photo credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin |
Assemb. Bob Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) is chairman of the New York State Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee.
Miners used to take a canary into a coal mine to provide a warning of trouble to come. On Long Island we've received a similar alarm: Disappearing aquatic life is cautioning us about the state of our water.
Killer red and harmful brown tides have been occurring with increasing regularity. These, along with other contamination, have resulted in the loss of Long Island's once abundant shellfish and fishing industries.
Long Island is served by a sole source aquifer. This means that unlike other areas of the state that withdraw water from lakes or other bodies of water on the Earth's surface, our only source of drinking water is underground. All of the Island's drinking water literally comes from beneath our feet. But when it comes to water quality, out-of-sight can't mean out-of-mind.
Human activity on the surface of the land -- including development and indiscriminate use of pesticides -- introduces contaminants into our water, contributing to the ruin of our aquatic ecosystems. Recent studies show that the pollution is increasing at an alarming rate. Nitrates, pesticides and volatile organic compounds are present in our underground drinking water supplies at elevated levels.
Our water is still safe to drink, but it is getting less so.
Although the contamination levels meet the current standards for human consumption, they aren't meeting the standards necessary to adequately sustain aquatic life. Pollutants in our lakes, rivers, bays and beaches are killing off essential plants and animals. For instance, sea grass serves as a vital habitat for nearly every commercial and recreationally important fish and shellfish. Sea grass beds used to cover as much as 200,000 acres on and around Long Island. Today, as a result of development and contamination, only 21,800 acres remain.
Red and brown tides are harmful algal blooms that are believed to be the result of excess nitrogen, which comes from inappropriate disposal of human waste and fertilizers. Before 2006, red tides -- an outbreak of the species Alexandrium -- were unknown on Long Island. But every year since then, there has been an occurrence. The algae contain toxins. As clams, mussels and scallops filter water through their bodies, the algae cells become concentrated, making the shellfish toxic -- a condition commonly referred to as paralytic shellfish poisoning. The infected shellfish aren't safe to eat, so shellfishing beds have to be closed. More than 10,000 acres of shellfishing beds have been closed at various times so far this year, closures that cost Long Island jobs and deprive many of what had been a way of life.
While these costs have been significant, they pale in comparison to what may lie ahead if we don't address these problems now. As contaminant levels rise, it will become either impossible or very expensive to clean our water up to drinking-level quality.
In September, the New Cassel/Hicksville Ground Water Contamination site in Nassau County was designated a Superfund site, where hazardous chemicals will be investigated, evaluated, cleaned up and monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Superfund designation resulted from the presence of plumes of volatile organic compounds emanating from the New Cassel industrial area. Two public water supply wells were found to have contamination above the maximum level.
Although the costs for this project have yet to be determined, it will certainly be an expensive undertaking. A 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicated that, based on statistics from New Jersey, a small cleanup would average $10 million to $25 million, paid for by the polluter -- if the polluter can be found. If not, the burden falls on the taxpayer.
So we need to take action to reverse the decline in Long Island's water quality. And all of us -- individuals, businesses, farmers, water suppliers and developers -- need to participate.
As individuals this means not flushing medicines down the toilet, but rather participating in pharmaceutical collection programs; minimizing the use of fertilizers; conserving water by purchasing efficient appliances; limiting outdoor watering; and properly disposing of household hazardous waste and other contaminants.
State and local governments must develop better practices, including better sewage management and smarter land-use policies, such as additional land preservation.
We need to include "green infrastructure" in any development. Such successful, cost-efficient projects may include managing rain where it falls by mimicking natural systems, and reducing water pollution by filtering, evaporating or recycling stormwater. Think of permeable or porous pavement and green roofs. The benefits of green infrastructure are many: potential reduction in capital costs from traditional materials, cleaner water, enhanced habitat for wildlife, increased recreational options and a more beautiful community.
We also need to develop a regional water protection plan that contains specific actions for protecting Long Island's water supply.
To do that, federal, state, county, town and village governments will have to work cooperatively. State agencies must prioritize water protection activities.
Long Island's reliance on groundwater and the relatively shallow depth of soil overlying the aquifers pose unique challenges. Some pesticides are marketed with groundwater advisories and may be inappropriate for use on Long Island. A special draft Long Island Pesticide Use Management Plan has been established by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to properly manage the use of pesticides.
But the time spent doing lengthy reviews is time lost in properly managing our water resources. Pesticides are already harming the submerged aquatic vegetation in our estuaries -- vital plants that serve as habitat and nursery for numerous commercial and recreational fish and shellfish species. The DEC needs to expedite the pesticide management plan. There's enough evidence of what happens when pesticide contaminations occur.
There should be no higher priority than clean water -- the Island's economic and environmental future depends on it.