Transitioning Away from Reliance on Cesspools And Septic Systems Identified as Top Priority
Diverse Coalition of Scientists, Business Leaders, Organized Labor and Environmental Leaders Endorse Plan Recommendations
Scientific Analysis Predicts Improvements in Water Quality Within 10 Years Upon Implementation of Plan Recommendations
Taking an historic step forward in ongoing efforts to better protect both groundwater and surface waters, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has released the County’s long-awaited Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan [SWP], a rigorous scientific blueprint for transitioning away from reliance on cesspools and septic systems that have been identified by scientists as the primary source of nitrogen pollution that has fouled local bays, Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken announced today.
“Scientists have warned that continued reliance on primitive wastewater disposal systems is a mounting threat to both our environment and our economy,” said Commissioner Tomarken. “Now, for the first time, there is a long term plan to diminish nitrogen pollution and put Suffolk County on a path to cleaner, healthier water resources. The Department appreciates the support and assistance it received from scientists, academic institutions and government agencies on all levels in completing this historic effort.”
Development of the new wastewater plan was a primary recommendation of two major studies, the Smarter Cities Challenge report prepared by a team of experts from IBM in 2014, and the Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan completed in 2015. Preparation of the Plan began in September 2016 and included staff from regulatory agencies, scientists, academic institutions, and national subject matter experts. It is strongly supported by a broad and diverse group of stakeholders, including scientists and academics, business leaders, environmentalists, labor organizations and the building trades. Funding for the Plan was provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation under the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan. Funding was also provided by the New York State Department of State under the South Shore Estuary Program.
The Plan is the first science-based study ever to delineate more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County and establish goals for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area. Using scientific data, the Plan establishes Priority Areas where the replacement of cesspools and septic systems will have the most immediate benefit. If the full recommendations are enacted, the SWP projects that the trend of worsening water quality will be arrested and reversed within 10 years.
The Plan includes a series of recommendations for consideration by policy makers to reduce reliance on cesspools and septic systems over time by replacing them with new state-of-the-art nitrogen reducing septic systems, or, in some cases, by connecting homes to sewer systems. A key consideration is the need to identify a stable and recurring funding source to make the new systems or sewer connections affordable for homeowners. The Plan cites the Bay Restoration Fee implemented by the State of Maryland to fund upgrades, and a fee on water consumption implemented in Spokane, Washington, as examples of potential funding sources to be considered by policy makers.
Over the past several decades, Suffolk County’s groundwater and surface water quality have been plagued by elevating levels of nitrogen loading into the environment. While all sources of water pollution are concerning, nitrogen from cesspools and septic systems has been the most widespread and least well addressed of the region’s growing list of pollutants. Excess nitrogen has caused harmful algal blooms, caused fish kills, and contributed to the collapse of Suffolk County’s hard clam populations, which once supported a multi-million dollar industry that accounted for over 6,000 jobs.
Approximately 74 percent of Suffolk County remains unsewered, so individual residences and businesses rely on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems. Studies show that about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays comes from approximately 360,000 cesspools and septic systems. After 1973, newly installed systems were required to include both septic tanks and leaching pools. The Plan notes, however, that more than 253,000 of the systems were built before 1973, and are simply cesspools, which are essentially injection wells that direct contaminants to groundwater. The groundwater in Suffolk County is part of a sole-source aquifer that provides the region’s drinking water but is also the primary source of nitrogen contamination to streams and bays.
The plan sets an ambitious goal of investing $2.7 billion over 50 years to eliminate 253,000 cesspools and septic systems by replacing them with new individual nitrogen reducing systems, or by connecting properties to sewers. This funding would implement phases 1 through 3 of the plan to address top priority areas. The cesspool elimination efforts would be broken into four phases and increased over time as the capacity of the burgeoning industry increases and additional funding resources become available.
While the Plan identifies some areas that can be connected to sewers, most of the nitrogen reduction would be accomplished through replacement of cesspools with individual advanced nitrogen-reducing onsite systems that have been demonstrated to remove over 70 percent of nitrogen from wastewater. Both Suffolk County and New York State are currently offering grants that cover most of the cost for homeowners who decide to replace their cesspool or septic system with one of the new systems voluntarily.
Between 2019 and 2023, for Phase 1, which officials call the “Ramp up” phase, an estimated 10,000 cesspools and septic systems would be eliminated through replacement of 5,000 cesspools with new IA technology, and connection of 5,000 homes along river corridors on the South Shore to sewers as part of the Post-Sandy Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency Initiative. Several hundred additional parcels in downtown business districts would be connected to sewers. All the work in Phase 1 would be funded through existing grant sources, including more than $440 million in federal and state funding that the County has been awarded by New York State plus an anticipated $95 million in grants to upgrade antiquated septic systems for I/A technology. The Plan also recommends that policy makers amend the County Sanitary Code to require the use of new IA technology in new construction in 2020.
For the second phase, beginning in 2024, the Plan recommends the elimination of 177,000 cesspools and septic systems in near shore and high priority areas over a 30-year period at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. The Plan recommends that policy makers implement a requirement that cesspools and septic systems be replaced with the new technology when properties change hands, or when existing cesspools and septic systems fail and must be replaced. The SWP estimates that such requirements could increase the number of cesspools eliminated from 1,000 to over 5,000 per year.
“One critically important aspect of the plan is the economic opportunity and new jobs that will continue to be created, both in the rapidly developing industry of trained and certified technicians required to install and maintain the new nitrogen reducing systems, and in connecting thousands of additional parcels to sewers,” said Deputy County Executive Peter A. Scully. “Over the past several years, the County has worked cooperatively with the liquid waste industry to establish licensing requirements and to provide the training needed to install the new systems. Right now, the industry can support the installation of about 1,000 systems per year, but the capacity of the industry will continue to grow as more local small businesses are created to meet market demands.”
The third phase of the program calls for upgrades in all other priority areas in a 15 year period between the years 2054 and 2068, at a cost of $730 million. Upgrades in the remaining areas of the County would be completed in the fourth phase of the program at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, bringing the overall cost of the program for phases 1 through 4 to $4 billion.
In addition to recommendations for wastewater management, the Plan provides the foundation for advancing strategies to reduce nitrogen from non-wastewater sources such as fertilizer and includes recommendations for addressing other compounds, such as contaminants of emerging concern, phosphorous, and pathogens.
The Plan is the subject of detailed environmental review by the County’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), including the development of a Generic Environmental Impact Statement. CEQ’s determination that the DGEIS is complete, expected in mid-August, will trigger the start of a 30-day comment period and the scheduling of two public hearings on the Plan. Interested citizens can access information regarding the Plan online at The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan - A Roadmap to Reclaim Our Water.
“Because both our environment and our economy are underpinned by the bays that surround us and the below-ground aquifers that supply our drinking water, no other issue in history has united such a diverse group of stakeholders,” said County Executive Bellone. “The fight to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution from outdated cesspools and septic systems has created a unity of purpose among scientists, business leaders, environmentalists, the building trades and organized labor. The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan will provide policy makers with the information we need to make decisions based on sound science. As I have said many times, no plan to reverse nitrogen pollution will be successful unless policy makers find a way to make it easy and affordable for homeowners.”
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos said, “I applaud the completion of the pollution reduction assessments and plans for 191 small watersheds under County Executive Bellone’s leadership and through the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan partnership. Nitrogen is the leading cause of water quality problems in Long Island’s estuaries, causing algal blooms with the potential to destroy wetland and marine habitats. Today’s announcement represents an extensive, science-based assessment to identify sources of nitrogen to surface waters and groundwater and develop a clear plan to achieve reductions through technical, management, and regulatory actions in the years to come.”
Christopher J. Gobler, Ph.D., Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Director, New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, said, "The strength of this plan is the incredibly strong and sound science on which it is based. The County has taken what may be the largest and most comprehensive water quality data set generated by any county in the country and has generated a robust, comprehensive, and forward-thinking plan to restore Suffolk County's most vital resource: Its drinking water and surface waters. While I have spent my career documenting the degradation of Long Island's fisheries and aquatic habitats, it is inspiring to finally see a plan designed and implemented that will reverse course on decades of negative trajectories. The citizens of Suffolk County will reap the benefits of this plan for decades to come."
Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said, “This report is the most comprehensive, meaningful watershed study in the history of Long Island. It doesn’t just identify and characterize the problem, it sets forth an ambitious plan to solve the problem. The lack of infrastructure to treat sewage is making our island polluted and unsustainable. We now have the roadmap to restoring surface water quality within ten years of implementing wastewater treatment upgrades. The report provides a path to reverse the damage and ensure our waterways are healthy. Kudos to Suffolk County Executive Bellone for supporting and advancing this critical effort.”
John R. Durso, President, Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said, “The Long Island Federation of Labor applauds the comprehensive strategies advanced by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to address wastewater issues, a central concern for county residents. Guaranteeing the availability of clean drinking water and maintaining the viability of our coastlines will have major economic as well as environmental benefits. Creating a permanent funding stream to expand sewer districts and install advanced water treatment systems will create hundreds of jobs and allow for meaningful economic development in local communities.”
Kevin S. Law, President & CEO of the Long Island Association, said, “The investment of billions of dollars in new wastewater infrastructure will better protect the water resources which are critically important to our tourism economy while helping to spur new economic growth in downtown areas throughout the region. I commend County Executive Bellone for his leadership in advancing the Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan.
John D. Cameron, Jr., Chair of Long Island Regional Planning Council, said, “The Long Island Regional Planning Council strongly supports Suffolk County’s intelligent planning effort to address the County’s pervasive ground and surface water contamination problem. By conducting a scientific analysis of the County’s subwatersheds and the pollutional loadings that affect various receiving water bodies, the County will be able to prioritize its efforts to address nitrogen, bacteria, emerging contaminants and other sources of pollution. Various mitigation strategies will be employed such as sewer district expansions, treatment plant upgrades, installation of Innovative / Alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems, changes in land use regulations, fertilizer use restrictions, etc. to accomplish the County’s goal of improving our water quality, growing our economy and enhancing our quality of life. All this planning will be performed with the perspective of a changing climate and an ever-rising sea level.”
Kevin McDonald, Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, said, “The Nature Conservancy commends Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the Department of Health Services for spearheading the first clean water study of its kind and blueprint for healthier waters on Long Island. Its robust findings show how we can fix sewage leaking from on-site wastewater systems to protect our drinking water, local businesses, wildlife, and beaches for generations to come. The study emphasizes the need for a dedicated funding source so that we can continue making necessary investments to update our wastewater infrastructure. We look forward to working with policymakers and partners to realize a clean water future for Long Island."
Mitchell H. Pally, Chief Executive Officer of Long Island Builders Institute, said, “The Long Island Builders Institute, the state’s largest residential building trade association, strongly supports the efforts of Suffolk County to determine how to reduce the amount of nitrogen and other contaminants going into our groundwater. LIBI continues to work with the county in a variety of initiatives to facilitate where additional sewer lines will be appropriate and how to implement other alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems in those areas where additional sewer lines are not feasible. In addition, we strongly support efforts to modify our zoning regulations to provide the new housing options in those areas of the county where it is appropriate, such as our downtown areas near our mass transit systems.”
Kyle Strober, Executive Director of the Association for a Better Long Island (ABLI), a leading regional advocacy group, said, “Suffolk County is taking the steps necessary to reduce nitrogen and other contaminants in our groundwater, helping make our water bodies healthier and more vibrant. In addition to the environmental benefits, the Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan will spur economic development, enabling downtown areas to connect to sewers and allowing for transit-oriented development that Long Island’s workforce is demanding. I commend County Executive Steve Bellone for his vision and execution of this win-win plan for Long Island.”
Walter Dawydiak, Director of Environmental Quality for Suffolk County, said, “This plan represents the first meaningful strategy to address legacy septic nitrogen pollution since County-wide sewering objectives were abandoned some four decades ago. In those four decades, we learned a great deal about how toxic excess nitrogen is to the ecosystem. However, we consistently failed to solve the single largest environmental health problem of our generation. Finally, we have a response plan that will restore our ecosystems, and protect our drinking water.”
Marc Herbst, Executive Director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, said, “The Long Island Contractors’ Association applauds County Executive Bellone’s leadership for developing a comprehensive and action-oriented plan to ensure the quality of Suffolk County’s most important resource – water. The report demonstrates a clear vision along with a realistic plan for funding critical infrastructure updates in the near and long term, which will provide economic and environmental benefits for Suffolk County residents.”
Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, "Clean water is the lifeblood of Suffolk County. We are confident that County Executive Steve Bellone's new Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan will bring meaningful and long-lasting improvements to water quality across Long Island. Through sewer expansion projects, wastewater treatment upgrades, and nitrogen reducing systems, waterways will be cleaner and healthier. We applaud Suffolk County Executive Bellone for making water quality his top priority."
Matthew Aracich, President, Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau & Suffolk Counties, said, “A multi-year, multi-million dollar initiative like the installation of wastewater infrastructure is exactly the type of program Suffolk county needs to help enhance the quality of life on Long Island. A project of this scope will create hundreds of jobs and allow for cleaner water and coastline preservation. The major environmental impacts this proposal will have will be seen by generations to come while also directly benefiting the communities of today."
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, said, “The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan is a significant piece of work and will serve as an invaluable tool as we move forward with implementing Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program and cleaning up our ground and surface waters. This was a long and deliberative process and there are many people to thank including members of Suffolk County Economic Development and Planning and the Division of Environmental Quality, as well as County Executive Steve Bellone, who had the vision to recognize the impact of nitrogen pollution and the resolve to move forward with finding solutions.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said, "Science tells us that nitrogen from outdated septic systems is the leading cause of contamination of our groundwater, which then spreads into our bays, gravely impacting our entire ecosystem. In the face of this crisis, I applaud County Executive Bellone and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services for taking the lead with this groundbreaking, science-based plan, which targets priority areas within Suffolk County to save our drinking water and our critical marine resources. I'm proud to have been part of this vital undertaking, and I look forward to continuing the work required to support the effort."
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, Chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee, said, “Today’s release of the Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan marks the culmination of an initial phase in the mission of cleaning and restoring Suffolk County’s water resources. While we mark this plan as an important waypoint in the effort to restore our surface, ground and drinking waters there is much more to be done. Fortunately, the work done to this point and contained in this plan will become the basis of and guide the next and necessary in this process. I thank all of the professionals within the Department of Health Services and Division of Planning who contributed to this plan and County Executive Bellone and members of the Legislature for their work in ensuring its completion.”