The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone stood on the shore of the Peconic River today to declare that the health of the Peconic Estuary is in serious jeopardy and the region needs significant financial assistance from the federal government to help restore it.
“Without question the recent fish kills are the product of the water quality crisis we face,” said Bellone, flanked by his recently appointed “water quality czar” Peter Scully, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, Legislator Al Krupski and a representative of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during a press conference at the Riverhead Yacht Club.
“Nitrogen is water public enemy number one,” he said. “Every water body in our region has been declared an impaired water body. That’s not sustainable for our region. We cannot have a vibrant future, we cannot have sustainable growth if we are not protecting our water.”
Nitrogen promotes algae growth, which depletes a water body’s dissolved oxygen levels. Dissolved oxygen levels in the Peconic River and western Flanders Bay have been at or near zero, according to Stony Brook University marine research scientists. Marine life can’t survive without oxygen.
Bellone said he’ll be asking the federal government to make significant infrastructure investments to improve the Peconic Estuary, one of only 28 designated estuaries of national significance.
Asked how much he’d seek, the county executive responded, “As much as they can give us.”
Private septic systems are one of the main culprits in polluting groundwater with nitrogen. The groundwater flows like an underground river to the river and bay on the south or the sound on the north. High levels of nitrogen in groundwater account for 81 percent of the nitrogen pollution in western Flanders Bay, according to the Peconic Estuary Program’s comprehensive management plan.
Replacing existing private septic systems with either modern on-site septic system technology, community waste treatments systems or larger municipal treatment plants is prohibitively expensive and beyond the means of local and county governments, Bellone said.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he intends to propose running a municipal sewer line down Peconic Bay Boulevard.
“Next year, I will be putting forth an effort to produce a map and plan to sewer Peconic Bay Boulevard.,” Walter said.
Walter also called on waterfront residents to stop using lawn fertilizers.
“If you own grass like this on the riverfront you should not be fertilizing it. Period. Ever. At all,” Walter said. “Please. We implore you. If you have waterfront property do not fertilize it.” He said waterfront property owners had a “moral obligation to stop using fertilizer.”
Fertilizer dumped on waterfront property ends up right in the river with the first rain, the supervisor said.
He noted that some fisheries — including bluefish and menhaden, commonly known as bunker— are making a comeback.
“But we’re doing so much to impair the estuary, we’re not giving fish a fighting chance to survive.”
In an interview after the press conference, Walter said the town needs to look at whether it makes more sense to bring wastewater flow from Jamesport to the existing treatment plant in Riverhead or to build another plant in the eastern region of the town. The capacity of the town’s sewage treatment plant on River Avenue would have to be expanded to accept the additional flow, and then there’s miles of pipe to be constructed.
“Either way, it’s a very expensive proposition,” he said, reiterating Bellone’s statements on the need for federal aid.
Jim Gilmore, chief of the marine resources bureau at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said fish kills have occurred in neighboring states like Rhode Island and New Jersey, but the scale of those kills has been nothing like the magnitude of the kills in the Peconic Estuary.
“Here, three to four hundred thousand fish have washed up on the shore in this area,” Gilmore said.
State DEC officials have been taking samples for testing. “The good news is it’s not toxic but there is unique plankton that can cause suffocation problems,” Gilmore said. “It’s algae that typically shouldn’t be growing here this time of year. Its growth is fueled by nitrogen.”
Gilmore said a water quality report would be completed in about a week.
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