Suffolk County voters may be asked in November whether they want to pay water-usage fees to help fund countywide water quality improvement measures such as sewer and cesspool upgrades.
The extra charge would amount to about $73 per year for the average family’s usage, the county estimates. The idea is to reduce the amount of nitrogen that’s finding its way into Long Island’s creeks and bays.
The nitrogen comes mostly from human waste and fertilizers, studies have found, and feeds the algal blooms —such as red tides and brown tides — that result in closed beaches and decimated shellfish populations, among other problems.
The plan was announced by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Monday in Southaven County Park, where he was joined by dozens of supporters of the measure that included elected leaders, marine scientists, labor representatives environmental advocates.
They touted the measure as a way of protecting the island’s health, economy and overall way of life for generations to come.
“Are we going to be a place that protects water quality or not? That is the question before us,” Bellone said. “I am very confident the people of Suffolk County understand the problems that we face, and know the value and importance of reversing the decades of decline that we have seen in our water quality.”
County officials say about 360,000 Suffolk homes use cesspool or septic systems, which could be replaced by sewer hookups or newer on-site systems known as denitrification systems, which the county is testing.
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine also stood with Bellone as a supporter on Monday, as did Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri.
“We all know if we do nothing, things aren’t going to get better,” Romaine said. “We have to do something. Kudos to the county executive for putting together a program. Did we all think that this problem was going to be solved without spending some money? We need to spend some money to create a better future for this island.”
Bellone said the county will need state legislation to get the referendum on the November ballot. He said he’s confident that will happen, given the bipartisan support for water quality measures in Albany. Improving water quality on Long Island and elsewhere has also been a priority of Governor Andrew Cuomo, he said.
Dick Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, later called the island’s widespread practice of dumping human waste into rings in the ground “5,000-year-old technology” that’s inappropriate for an area so densely populated — and one that drinks from the very aquifers into which it dumps.
“Whatever investments in studies is now complete,” Amper said.
“We know what the problem is, and now it’s time for action.”