Scientists at Stony Brook University recently revealed the results of an assessment of water quality in Long Island’s estuaries during a press conference at Fire Island National Seashore Visitor’s Center on Tuesday, September 12. Unfortunately for those living in the area, it’s not good.
The report was compiled by Dr. Christopher Gobler, Professor of Stony Brook University, whose lab groups have been observing and sampling Long Island’s waters on a weekly basis throughout the summer of 2017. Additional data was collected from the Long Island Sound Study which is funded by US Environmental Protection Agency.
From May through August, the report noted that every major bay and estuary across Long Island was impacted by a toxic algae blooms or oxygen starved waters or both.
“It began with paralytic shellfish poisoning events in May and ended with a harmful rust tide that continues today across the East End of Long Island,” explained Dr. Christopher Gobler, Professor of Stony Brook University. “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 brown tide bloom appeared in mid-May and continued into August, during which time it spanned waters from Freeport to Southampton. This is the most dense occurrence of brown tide the area has seen, with brown tide cell densities exceeding 2.3 million cells per milliliters in Great South Bay, a level that no Long Island entity had ever witnessed. Even just 50,000 cells per milliliters of brown tide can be detrimental to shellfish, a level sustained for more than 10 weeks this summer.
“Our water quality is degrading before our eyes,” said Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director, Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Our bays are dying and the science clearly shows us why.”
Long Island also experienced several dead zones, regions of low or no oxygen, this summer. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation mandates that marine waters must not be below three milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter to allow fish to survive, however, many of the sites tested did not meet that criteria.
“The data reveals that that many sites are not suitable habitats for sustaining fish and shellfish,” Dr. Gobler shared.
Unfortunately, several new water bodies with toxic blue-green algal blooms were discovered in 2017. Although locations like Long Island’s largest lake, Lake Ronkonkoma, have had continual issues with the toxic blooms, it was found that 15 sites had experienced the algae, which makes toxins that can be harmful to humans and animals, and has even been linked to dog illnesses and a dog death in 2012, for the first time this year. Last year Suffolk County experienced more lakes with blue-green algal blooms than any other of the 64 counties in New York State, a trend that is likely to continue.
All of the problematic happenings are a result of rising levels of nitrogen coming from land and entering Long Island’s surface waters. Household sewage and fertilizers, which are washed into groundwater that seeps in bays, harbors, and estuaries, cause the largest sources of nitrogen, which stimulates toxic algal blooms. “The confluence of all of these events in all these places across Long Island in a single season is a clear sign of things being amiss,” Dr. Gobler noted.
The occurrence of these events has resulted in the collapse of vital marine habitats like seagrass and major fisheries on Long Island such as scallops and clams. It has even impacted the coastal wetlands that help safeguard waterfront communities from the destructive impacts of storms.
“The problem will not fix itself,” Esposito stressed. “We need to rapidly move forward with advanced innovative septics, expansion of sewers, and creation of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan.”
Local organizations have been working for more than a decade to revive and restore these habitats and shellfish, but this summer was especially challenging.
“The Nature Conservancy is grateful for the leadership Governor Cuomo and our Long Island legislative delegation, including Assemblyman Englebright and Senator Hannon, have provided as we work to address water quality on Long Island,” said Carl LoBue, NY Ocean Program Director with The Nature Conservancy. “It has gotten to the point that we have to watch News 12 each week to see where it is safe to swim or fish. Fortunately, our state leaders invested $2.5 billion for water quality in this year’s state budget, including a new septic rebate program. This funding, along with local funding and efforts such as the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan and the permitting of new septic technologies will go a long way to make our waters clean again. We stand ready to continue our work with state and local officials and our partners to implement these important programs.”
While the study’s results are alarming, State, County and local leadership have devoted 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, a $10 million shellfish restoration effort for LI that was established by the Governor, a Long Island Sound Nitrogen Action Plan from the US EPA, the advancement of the consolidation of Long Beach STP to Bay Park and utilizing an existing ocean outfall pipe by Nassau County, Suffolk County will have approved 12 different waste water treatment technologies by the end of the year, a Suffolk County grant program that allows homeowners $10,000 to replace aging septics with new waste water treatment technologies, the five East End Towns have established a reoccurring fund for water quality protection, and the Town of East Hampton and Town of Southampton passed legislation requiring new construction and large scale reconstruction to use modernize waste water treatment technology.
“Although this year’s research paints a bleak picture of the scale of Long Island’s water quality crisis, recent investments in advanced sewage treatment projects and programs mark the beginning of measurable water quality action by local, county and New York State governments,” said Bob Deluca, President, Group for the East End. “These are critical first steps, but the data tell us there is far more to be done.”
“The quality of our local bodies of water is not only vital to the region’s important tourism industry, but is vital to the way of life that so many Long Islanders have grown accustomed to and have come to love,” added Dick Amper, Executive Director, The Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “It is our hope that the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan will play a critical role in reversing the trend of worsening algal blooms that has been observed in recent years.”