Riverhead Sewer District Superintendent Michael Reichel (at podium) applauds the town and county workers who constructed the upgraded facilities. Photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead’s sewage treatment plant upgrade and the innovative wastewater reuse partnership with the county golf course garnered accolades yesterday from a high-ranking federal Environmental Protection Agency official and environmental activists.

The “incredibly innovative” $24 million upgrade and reuse project, completed with financial assistance from federal, state and county governments, is “a model not just for Long Island but for the nation,” EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said yesterday at a press conference at Indian Island County Golf Course in Riverhead.

“It is a clean water gift to our children and grandchildren,” Enck said.

The plant accepts waste by pipeline from properties within the Riverhead Sewer District and by truckload from properties in the towns of Riverhead and Southampton that are served by private septic systems. As a result of the upgrade, it can treat up to 1.5 million gallons of wastewater per day to the technological limit of under 4 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. Using membrane technology and high-dose ultraviolet disinfection, the plant of course treats for a host of other pathogens, including viruses, as well.

Turning the Riverhead sewage treatment plant into Long Island’s first water resource recovery facility by diverting up to 500,000 gallons per day of treated effluent from the Peconic River to irrigation uses on county- and town-owned land — the Indian Island golf course and the sewer district property itself — will reduce nitrogen-loading in the by 1.4 tons per year.

EPA regional administrator Judith Enck yesterday had high praise for the town's newly upgraded plant and innovative water recovery project. Photo: Peter Blasl
EPA regional administrator Judith Enck yesterday had high praise for the town’s newly upgraded plant and innovative water recovery project. Photo: Peter Blasl

Nitrogen pollution is a serious issue across the country, Enck said. Nitrogen contributes to harmful algal blooms and increases aquatic plant growth in water bodies, which in turn consume too much oxygen. That can deplete oxygen to levels that cannot support marine life, resulting in massive fish kills like the ones seen in the Peconic in 2015.

“This is a serious issue,” Enck said. “Four counties in Florida declared a state of emergency this summer because of nitrogen loading and algal blooms.” Nationwide, she said, 15,000 water bodies are affected by nitrogen pollution.

One of them is the Peconic Estuary, designated an “estuary of national significance” by the EPA in 1992.

Enck joined Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, Peconic Estuary Program Citizens Advisory Committee chairman Kevin McDonald and Peconic Estuary Program director Alison Branco and others in crediting Riverhead Sewer District Superintendent Michael Reichel with pursuing the innovative wastewater reclamation project. It’s something he’s worked on for more than 15 years.

“Twenty-five years or so ago [after the Brown Tide algal bloom that decimated the Peconic Bay scallop population] there was a natural tendency on the part of citizens to look for a bad guy and beat them up,” McDonald said yesterday. “That bad guy at the beginning was tagged to be the Town of Riverhead sewage treatment plant — because it was easy,” he said.

“Michael Reichel [then a newly appointed sewer district superintendent] went from being the bad guy …. to being the guy that led the charge to implement the change people were calling for,” said McDonald, who also serves as conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. He called it “terrific leadership at its best.”

With the latest round of treatment upgrades at the Riverhead facility, including the diversion of effluent for irrigation, the plant will be responsible for discharging only a small fraction of the nitrogen that impacts the estuary, McDonald said.

nitrogen-loading

Groundwater flowing into the estuary has always been the biggest source of nitrogen loading. Nitrogen is introduced into groundwater mostly by private septic systems and also by the application of nitrogen-rich lawn and agricultural fertilizers. Other sources include atmospheric deposition and stormwater runoff. Runoff contains fertilizers washed into streets which drain into the estuary, either directly or via storm drains.

Reichel, who was honored by the EPA last year with an Environmental Champion Award, said the accolades don’t belong to him alone.

“It’s an honor but it wasn’t me. It’s not any one person, but a lot of people,” he said. He thanked the town’s sewer district staff, its engineering firm, H2M, county parks department employees who worked to get the irrigation system up and running, and elected officials who supported the project along the way.

His interest in reuse dates back to when he first began working at the treatment plant in 1984, he said in an interview following the press conference. The county at the time deemed reclamation unnecessary, “but I knew it needed to be done,” he said.

“When you get into a position to do the right thing and do the best that you can for the right project, you do it,” said Reichel, a Riverhead native. “People are put in positions to do the right thing and I’m glad I was able to do it.”

Reichel is not going to spend any time resting on his laurels. He’s already working on an expansion and upgrade of the Calverton sewage treatment plant, located within the Calverton Enterprise Park. He’s also pursuing his goal of using sludge for land application.

The valves will be opened on the golf course irrigation system hookup with the sewage treatment plant on Monday night, Reichel said.

A host of officials gathered at a podium on the Indian Island County Golf Course yesterday. Photo: Peter Blasl
A host of officials gathered at a podium on the Indian Island County Golf Course yesterday. Photo: Peter Blasl

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.