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Where Has Nitrogen Reduction Been Successful?

Kids Playing in Long Island Sound

While there is a big price-tag associated with upgrading the 360,000 cesspools and septic systems that leach nitrogen pollution into our groundwater, the cost of doing nothing is not an option as harmful algal blooms, fish kills, beach and shellfish closures continue to plague our region.

But as millions of dollars begin to be invested in alternative septic systems to reduce the flow of nitrogen pollution from sewage into Long Island’s waters, how do we know that the investment will pay off?  How do we know that less nitrogen will mean more fish, fewer closings of lakes and ponds, and healthier tidal marshes—to name just a few of the goals of the many people working at the state and local levels to improve our water quality and public health?

Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, has an answer. There, a 23 percent reduction in nitrogen pollution has been accompanied by a gain of 42,000 acres of sea grass—a vital underwater habitat that supports shellfish and finfish yet is extremely difficult to restore once lost. That’s an increase of 316 percent in seagrass cover since nitrogen reductions began there. Authors of a recent peer-reviewed study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science call the return of sea grass to Chesapeake Bay an “unprecedented recovery.”

Other nitrogen-reduction success stories include increased dissolved oxygen in Long Island Sound following reductions of nitrogen discharges from sewage treatment plants, return of sea grass to Mumford Cove in Connecticut following the removal of a sewage outfall pipe, and a large resurgence in seagrass cover in Tampa Bay, FL, but the study’s authors say that “the Chesapeake Bay has seen greater total and proportional recovery than any other [sea grass] restoration project of which we are aware.”

Long Island has followed several of the policy changes implemented in the Chesapeake Bay region including rebate programs for onsite wastewater system upgrades. As long as we make the necessary investments, we can expect that our results will also emulate those of the Chesapeake.

Economic Gains from Better Water Quality

Economic gains from better water quality are no drop in the bucket, according to a Stony Brook University study based on Suffolk County home sales. The study found “a 1-foot improvement in water clarity” could result in housing value increases “equaling $2.7 billion in the aggregate for Suffolk County.”

The best way to stem the tide of destructive nitrogen pollution is to eliminate it at its source. In most places on Long Island, the primary source for nitrogen pollution is human waste water flowing from our septic systems. That waste water reaches our bays, harbors, ponds and creeks through ground water flow and threatens Long Island’s health, economy and quality of life. We’re fixing it now by modernizing and upgrading our wastewater treatment systems. This process is in its infancy and there is still a lot to be learned about best practices. Suffolk County is to be commended for taking steps to create a program that will mitigate nitrogen pollution at its source to protect our Long Island way of life for us and our children.