Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has announced that the County’s landmark Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan (SWP) has become the first countywide watershed plan in New York State history to be approved by New York State as a Nine Elements Watershed Plan. The County’s long-term water quality plan is the first countywide watershed plan to receive State approval and is only the third 9E Watershed Plan approved statewide. As a result of the designation, applications for grant funding under New York State’s Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP) will receive additional points during the application review and scoring process, increasing the likelihood of a project being awarded State grant funds.
“The fight to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution from outdated cesspools and septic systems has created a unity of purpose among scientists, business leaders, environmentalists, the building trades and organized labor.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 provides policy makers with the information needed to make decisions based on sound science.” said County Executive Bellone. “The approval of the Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan as a NYSDEC 9E Watersheds Plan will ensure the findings of the Plan are considered in competitive grant applications for New York State water quality grant programs, ultimately increasing the likelihood that State grant funds will be awarded for the restoration of our waters. The approval continues to demonstrate the strong partnership that Suffolk County maintains with the Office of the Governor and the NYSDEC. Suffolk County thanks New York State for its unwavering support toward reclaiming our water.”
“The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan was the result of a rigorous and transparent three year process that built upon input from technical experts, government officials and a wide variety of non-government stakeholders,” said Dr. Pigott, Commissioner, Suffolk County Department of Health Services. “The Plan provides the first science-based roadmap to address nitrogen pollution in Suffolk County since the 1978 208 Study. New York State’s designation of the Plan as the first countywide 9E Watersheds Plan further validates the hard work, dedication, and science that went into this tremendous effort. Suffolk County thanks Governor Cuomo and the DEC for theirs continued support of efforts to improve water quality in Suffolk County.”
“Suffolk County should take great pride in this water quality accomplishment,” said James Tierney, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “The County’s 9E Plan is the first of its kind, as it addresses nitrogen pollution throughout an entire county. No other county has completed such a plan. DEC intends to employ Suffolk County’s groundbreaking 9E Plan as an example for others.”
“Suffolk County went above and beyond the significant requirements for a 9E Plan,” Deputy Commissioner Tierney noted “For example, Suffolk County undertook a great deal of stakeholder engagement -getting citizens apprised of progress and involving them in the formulation of actions to improve water quality. The County understood that public acceptance and action is critical for ultimate 9E program success. Moreover, as nitrogen pollution is a problem will not be solved by a limited set of actions, the County adopted a well-thought adaptive management approach to help ensure effective plan revisions and implementation over the long-term. Suffolk County also recognized in the plan that it will take many years of commitment and focused financial solutions to sustain such a large-scale pollution reduction program.”
The SWP was developed in response to overwhelming evidence that nitrogen from onsite wastewater systems is resulting in significant water quality degradation throughout the County. In 2014, a team of experts assigned by IBM to assess the lack of sewers as part of the company’s Smarter Cities Challenge program, urged the county to develop a long-term plan to expand the use of active wastewater treatment infrastructure. A holistic wastewater strategy was also recommended in the county’s 2015 Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, which documented continuing and steady degradation of water quality due mostly to legacy septic systems. In 2015, New York State announced creation of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP), a multi-jurisdictional partnership focused on making meaningful reductions in nitrogen across Long Island. Development of the SWP directly responds to these recommendations and satisfies a major milestone in the LINAP Scope.
Over the past several decades, Suffolk County’s groundwater and surface water quality have been plagued by elevated and increasing 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 from cesspools and septic systems has been linked to harmful algal blooms, hypoxia and 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. The harmful effects ultimately destabilize wetlands, aquatic vegetation and ecosystems, impairing coastal resiliency.
Because approximately 74 percent of Suffolk County remains unsewered, individual residences and businesses rely primarily on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen. There are approximately 380,000 existing cesspools and septic systems in the county. 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 existing systems were built before 1973, and are simply cesspools, which essentially serve as injection wells that direct contaminants towards 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 SWP, along with five other independent scientific studies published in the last decade, have identified nitrogen from onsite wastewater systems as the single largest source of nitrogen pollution to the water resources of the County, including about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays.
The SWP is the first science-based study ever to delineate more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County, establish goals for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area, and to establish a recommended roadmap for how to address nitrogen emanating from the 380,000 antiquated sanitary systems. While sewer connections make sense in select geographic areas, a fundamental conclusion and recommendation in the SWP is that the use of I/A OWTS represents the most cost effective means to reduce nitrogen from wastewater sources in most areas of the County. The SWP also estimates that nitrogen from onsite wastewater sources may increase an additional 20 percent if the county continues to use the existing antiquated wastewater disposal systems, making the use of I/A OWTS for new construction paramount to restoring and protecting water quality throughout the county.
If the full recommendations of the SWP are enacted, it is projected that the trend of worsening water quality will be arrested and reversed within 10 years. The Draft SWP was released in August 2019 and was subject to a two month public comment period. A revised SWP incorporating public comments, and comments received by the Suffolk County Council on Environmental Quality, was posted in February 2020 and the Final SWP incorporating minor revisions to satisfy the requirements of the 9E Watershed Plan program was published in July 2020. Release of the Plan was welcomed with unprecedented support by a broad and diverse group of stakeholders, including scientists and academics, business leaders, environmentalists, labor organizations and the building trades.
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.”
On October 6, 2020, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved a bill for revisions to Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code implementing two of the primary recommendations of the SWP. The proposed sanitary code changes were also unanimously approved by the Suffolk County Board of Health on October 21, 2020 and include a requirement for the use of I/A OWTS for all new construction as well as changes to the requirements for small STPs referred to as “Appendix A Modified Sewage Disposal Systems”. Changes to the requirements for Appendix A systems will increase the flexibility of their use in Suffolk County, particularly in locations where siting advanced wastewater treatment can be difficult, such as downtown hamlets. Both sanitary code amendments were fundamental early action recommendations of the SWP and represent the most significant change in County wastewater disposal requirements since 1973. The bill was backed by a wide-range of interest groups with extraordinary and overwhelming support.
“You do not get to a unanimous vote on the Suffolk County Legislature on an issue of this importance easily,” said County Executive Steven Bellone. “That does not happen accidentally. It’s because of the extraordinary work that has taken place to get us to this point.”
John Cameron, Chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said, “Of prime importance for Suffolk County, indeed for all Long Island, is water quality. The county’s code amendments, rooted in rigorous science, will help to protect and restore surface water and groundwater quality alike while addressing the critical need for affordable housing. Given the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, these changes are particularly welcome since they will provide a much-needed boost to the economy of downtown business districts. These amendments are essential to the implementation of the county’s Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan and to achieving the goals and vision identified by the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP). As a LINAP partner, we thank Suffolk County for its continued leadership in aggressively addressing the region’s nitrogen pollution problem.”
Kevin McDonald, Conservation Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Chapter, said, “Requiring new home construction and major renovation projects to install clean water septic systems is a win-win for our communities and economy. Preventing nitrogen pollution from contaminating our drinking water and waterways will help to lower the overall cost of cleaning up Long Island’s waters over the long term. With demand for these new technologies already increasing, the Legislature’s approval of Introductory Resolution 1643 will encourage manufacturers to continue investing in Long Island and help to create even more good paying jobs.”
NYSDEC 9E Watershed Plans are consistent with the EPA’s framework to develop watershed-based plans. EPA’s framework consists of nine key elements. The elements are intended to ensure that the contributing causes and sources of nonpoint source pollution are identified, that key stakeholders are involved in the planning process and that restoration and protection strategies are identified that will address the water quality concerns. An overview of EPA’s framework is in Nine Minimum Elements to be included in a Watershed Plan document (PDF). 9E plans use adaptive management, have strong implementation sections, are effective plans for restoration or protection, and projects identified in 9E plans are eligible for federal and state funding. Applications submitted to DEC’s Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP) grant program that identify projects from a 9E watershed plan receive higher points. More information can be found on 9E Watershed Plans here.