Equal Time: It’s about our health, not property rights

02/24/2013 8:00 AM |

In response to John Betsch’s Feb. 14 guest spot “No need to fight over conservation,” I agree strongly that we should not have pointless divisions and am dismayed that he feels that property rights are being attacked.

The water quality of our aquifers, bays and Sound are not a partisan issue, nor should the community be divided into “camps.” We all need to better understand the conditions that cause the most harm. Then, as individuals and as a community, we need to target solutions appropriate for each particular situation.

Healthy waters safeguard property values, as well as protect the marine and tourist industries that define our local economy and treasured character.

Why do we care about water quality? Our waters are degrading. In addition to pathogens and other contaminants, excess nutrient loading, especially forms of nitrogen, is a significant concern.

The North Fork has the highest levels of excess nitrates in groundwater in Suffolk County. In some areas, over 15 percent of our wells fail to meet safe drinking water standards. It is projected that, with the scope of development allowed by current zoning, these nitrate levels will consistently exceed safe drinking water standards over much of the area.

Nitrogen from the atmosphere accounts for roughly half of the nitrates in our environment. Of the rest, individual human wastewater systems contribute 40 percent of the nitrates directly to groundwater. These contaminants quickly travel to the bays and the Sound, dramatically affecting marine life. The South Shore lost 98 percent of its shellfish industry due to excess nutrient loading. Do we want the same thing to happen here?

What are the wastewater conditions that contribute to poor water quality?

The majority of individual wastewater treatment systems installed before 1973 are most likely cesspools. These open-walled pits allow pathogens and dissolved solids to migrate to the soil and groundwater.

Even with septic systems built to current code, if the depth to groundwater is less than three feet, the wastewater does not have enough time to break down naturally and for filtering to occur.

Temporary wastewater system failure due to flooding can have a significant impact on water quality. Because they are not waterproof, cesspools in flood and surge zones contribute significantly to the resultant pollutions.

Current recommendations call for one acre as the minimum lot size necessary to dilute the concentrated wastewater that comes out of septic systems before it reaches our wells. This means that existing developments on small lots are contributing nitrates to groundwater at an excessive level. Our marine environment is significantly more sensitive and will suffer even at the recommended acreage standards.

The factors that put our drinking and open waters at risk tend to overlap. Because of this, selective improvements can dramatically improve water quality. Peconic Green Growth is currently mapping environmental and land use conditions that impact wastewater quality, as well as groundwater travel patterns. As a result, we will soon be able to identify neighborhoods that can most benefit from improvements. Improvements in these areas will help safeguard our health, our waterways and our property values.

We encourage all homeowners in the five eastern towns to be involved. First, please take the wastewater survey, accessible on the home page of peconicgreengrowth.org. Based on the responses so far, most people think that wastewater is an area of community concern appropriate for public subsidy. Peconic Green Growth has already received grants to help communities develop pilot projects to improve wastewater handling.

While the solutions to issues will vary, if we approach our water problems collectively, we are more likely to find cost-effective, efficient and effective solutions that protect our precious waters. Let’s not attack each other, let’s work together.

Glynis Berry is an architect and executive director of Peconic Green Growth. She lives in Orient.