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A Summer of Discontent in Long Island's Coastal Waters

New 2017 Report Shows Excessive Nitrogen Continues to Fuel Hypoxia, Toxic Algae Blooms threatening Public Health and Water Quality 

Scientists at Stony Brook University have completed their assessment of water quality in Long Island’s estuaries in 2017 and the news is not good -- during the months of May through August, every major bay and estuary across Long Island was afflicted by a toxic algae blooms or oxygen starved waters or both.  Heavy loads of nitrogen from sewage and fertilizers have been cited as the ultimate cause of these disturbing events.

It began with paralytic shellfish poisoning events in May and ended with a harmful rust tide that continues across the east end Long Island. In between, the longest and most intense brown tide bloom in recorded history, toxic blue-green algae in 14 lakes across the Island, seaweeds on ocean beaches, oxygen depleted waters found at more than 20 locations from Hempstead to East Hampton.  The confluence of all of these events in all these places across Long Island in a single season is a clear sign of nitrogen pollution.

Another disturbing occurrence were the dead zones across Long Island. Dead zones are regions of low or no oxygen and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation mandates that marine waters should never go below three milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter to allow fish to survive.  Through the summer, the majority of sites sampled did not meet these criteria.  The data reveals that that many sites are not suitable habitats for sustaining fish and shellfish.

Equally alarming was the large number of new water bodies with toxic blue-green algal blooms discovered in 2017.  While several of the locations such as Long Island’s largest lake, Lake Ronkonkoma, have had chronic problems, some of the 15 sites with toxic blue-green algal blooms experienced these events for the first time.  In 2016, Suffolk County had more lakes with blue-green algal blooms than any other of the 64 counties in New York State, a distinction that is likely to be repeated in 2017.  Blue-green algae make toxins that can be harmful to humans and animals and were linked to dog illnesses in multiple years and a dog death in 2012.

And all of these events can be traced back to rising levels of nitrogen coming from land and entering Long Island’s surface waters.  The largest sources of nitrogen are household sewage and fertilizers which are washed into groundwater that seeps in bays, harbors, and estuaries. Nitrogen stimulates toxic algal blooms that can, in turn, remove oxygen from bottom waters as they decay. 

The map generated by the report shows precisely where on Long Island various algal blooms and low oxygen zones developed during the summer of 2017.  Events depicted include algal blooms caused by Alexandrium causing paralytic shellfish poisoning and shellfish bed closures, rust tides caused by the algae Cochlodinium, brown tides caused by Aureococcus, toxic blue green algae blooms commonly caused by Microcystis, and seaweed blooms caused by Ulva.  The map also depicts hypoxic or low oxygen zones which are dangerous to marine life in Long Island Sound, Smithtown Bay, and more than 20 other locations across Long Island.

However, there is some good news. Commitments by Governor Cuomo, Commissioner Seggos and the Long Island legislative delegation to this issue and their investments will make measurable gains in water quality improvement. State, County and local leadership to advance water protection has provided new and unprecedented resources to address this issue including;

  • $2.5 billion allocated in the NY State budget for water quality, including funding for septic system rebates, sewer infrastructure upgrades and source water protection
  • $300 million in the Environmental Protection Fund
  • $5 million for the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan.
  • The Governor established a new $10 million shellfish restoration effort for LI.
  • The US EPA is crafting a Long Island Sound Nitrogen Action Plan
  • Nassau County is advancing the consolidation of Long Beach STP to Bay Park and utilizing an existing ocean outfall pipe
  • By the end of the year Suffolk County will have approved 12 different waste water treatment technologies.
  • Suffolk County’s grant program to allow homeowners $10,000 to replace aging septics with new waste water treatment technologies.
  • The 5 East End Towns have established a reoccurring fund for water quality protection.
  • Town of East Hampton and Town of Southampton passed legislation requiring new construction and large scale reconstruction to use modernize waste water treatment technology.

The problem of nitrogen pollution in Long Island’s waters is not going to be fixed immediately. But there are solutions in sight. To learn more about how you can help, visit http://longislandcleanwaterpartnership.org/content.aspx?page=athome

By: Kara Jackson, The Nature Conservancy

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