Equal Time: Don’t point fingers on water quality

The article “Get busy on water pollution” in the May 24 edition of The Suffolk Times demonstrates how little some well-intentioned environmentalists know about the subject.

As a professional engineer I spent 33 years with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and during that time we did a fantastic job of protecting residents’ health and welfare, especially on the East End.

Health department codes and regulations dating back to the late 1950s prohibited building on marine wetlands. That protected all the marshlands we still have, unlike in Nassau County, where they were dredged out and replaced with waterfront homes.

We also prepared groundwater that addressed the nitrate situation and revised our codes in the 1960s to limit building to two houses per acre. In 1970 we upgraded our codes again to require both public water and public sewage collection and treatment on lots smaller than one acre.

Southold Town instituted zoning in 1957 and had only one residential zoning category requiring lots of at least 12,500 square feet.

Show me any maps filed in Southold Town that following that specification. There aren’t any because all maps filed from Brookhaven east came across my desk and our code required lots of at lease 20,000 square feet unless public water was provided.

This lasted until 1990 where our codes were revised to require public water and public sewers on new lots of an acre or less.

Perhaps Mr. McAllister is unaware of past history. This code change in 1970 has helped preserve eastern Suffolk County and allowed the East End towns to upgrade their zoning codes to require 2-, 3- and even 5-acre lots.

These code changes didn’t come easy. Many real estate interests opposed these restrictive codes, but they were passed and enforced. The environmentalists are now crying for sewers or upgraded private sewage systems. We studied these systems beginning in the 1960s and they just do not make sense, especially in Southold Town.

The solution to the nitrate problem is best addressed by limiting the number of homes per acre. The Town of Southold has done that. The water resources management chapter of the town’s draft comprehensive plan contains a chart of nitrogen impacts in unsewered lots.

Even with fertilization by homeowners, in areas with two-acre zoning, the nitrate level is about two milligrams per liter (mg/L.)

This is with the currently required pre-cast septic tank leaching pool system, the most efficient and cost effective system anywhere.

The system touted by Mr. McAllister may be effective in other areas of the country with heavy clay soils, but is not worth the cost or associated problems that go with their use. The system is said to cost about $30,000 to install and then add to that operating costs of about $1,000 per year. Septic tank leaching pool systems have no operating costs.

I sincerely question all the hype about failing septic systems. Since 1970 all the private home systems have been constructed using pre-cast concrete components and structurally it’s a good system. Let’s look at the failure rate.

The real problem with groundwater quality is Southold farming. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done all I could to retain farming in Southold because if we don’t we will lose the town’s atmosphere. It was at my suggestion that Southold put a $1.75 million preservation bond issue on the ballot in 1982. I then served on the first farmland review committee and made recommendations to the Town Board on which farms to target for preservation.

Although farming is the cause of our groundwater problem, agriculture has saved the town from development.

For the past 30 or 40 years, 70 percent of the farmland has been owned by speculators, it’s still leased and farmed. With farming come the nitrates, pesticides and herbicides. Any farmland subdivision application that couldn’t show evidence of the availability of drinkable water was rejected by the health department.

The health department saved Southold Town, first by limiting density as far back as 1970 and then by strictly enforcing our subdivision standards.

Public water is also something environmentalists fear, but it’s not fair to blame the Suffolk County Water Authority for providing safe water to all Suffolk residents.

The Health Department led SCWA to Southold, first taking over the troubled Captain Kidd Estates system in Mattituck. The authority then brought the Greenport System outside the village limits, all with no cost to local taxpayers.

I’m proud of my career with the health department and I could not let criticism of the department by ill-informed and in most cases untrained people go unanswered.

There is a way to keep this town as it is, but it has to start with the farmers.

At the time of his retirement in 1990 Mr. Villa served as chief engineer of the county health departments’s division of environmental health. He has lived in Southold since 1966 and currently resides in Greenport.