State, federal mandates force town to take steps to limit water pollution

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Houses along the shore to the west of Southold’s Town Beach.

A longer and more expensive permit application process for new construction, stricter enforcement, stiffer penalties and a hot line to report illicit discharging.

These are some of the code changes the town is pursuing to comply with new federal and state mandates aimed at improving water quality.

During an informational meeting at Town Hall Jan. 19 — ironically, during the peak of a heavy rainstorm — town engineer Jamie Richter presented proposed code amendments that are required to go into effect by March.

Under orders from both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Conservation, the town not only must act to improve quality in waters that fail to meet federal clean water standards, but must also record and report each plan developed and each step taken.

Although the town enacted its own stormwater management plan in 2003, in 2009 the DEC designated the town as a municipal separate storm sewer system operator, commonly known as MS4. The MS4 designation means the town must develop, implement and enforce a stormwater management program requiring developers to submit more stringent pollution prevention plans proposals to ensure building projects don’t contaminate wetlands.

A basic plan is required for single-family homes and residential subdivisions involving soil disturbances on one to five acres. A more detailed approach is required for more intense projects, such as commercial developments and roads. All must be approved by the DEC.

Supervisor Scott Russell said although stricter requirements for development plans will help improve water quality, he disagrees with some of the DEC’s mandates.

For example, the town is required to identify the cause of high bacteria counts in local waters. But if tests show animal droppings are contributing to the contamination of a body of water, the town can’t legally take corrective action.

“Hunting of deer and geese is regulated by the state, so while we’re required by the state to come up with a plan, we don’t have the authority to implement it,” Mr. Russell said.

Animal waste, as well as pet droppings and home septic systems, can all introduce coliform bacteria into surface waters. High bacterial counts result in the closing of shellfish beds.

Another challenge the town faces is financing stormwater mitigation projects. Many town roads end close to waterways and the pavement serves to channel runoff directly into the water. One proven solution is to remove the asphalt at the very end and install a drainage collection system that includes a vegetative buffer.

“It will become one of our biggest challenges over the next few years,” Mr. Russell said. He described road runoff as “one of our biggest threats and, from an expenditure point of view, it’s going to be very costly. People shouldn’t have any allusions.”

Last year, the town spent over $2 million for stormwater mitigation for about four roads, mostly on Fishers Island.

“We’ve been investing as much as we can without breaking the bank,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s a well-intended program on the state and federal level. The administration of it is what becomes a difficult process.”

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