Southold Town cautiously optimistic over DEC’s nitrogen plan

Due to recent concerns over the lack of water-quality testing by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in local waterways, Southold Town officials are viewing the agency’s latest push to regulate nitrogen runoff with a mixture of optimistic support and experienced skepticism. 

The DEC is now forming a Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan to help combat excessive nitrogen levels in water across the region, including in the Peconic Estuary and the Long Island Sound watersheds. A conceptual scope draft plan is in place, and the organization has been meeting with leaders and residents to discuss and develop it.

Last Tuesday, the DEC held a meeting in Riverhead, with one portion solely for local leaders and another public portion that was virtually packed, according to Mr. Collins. He and Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell attended to share their thoughts with the DEC.

Both Mr. Russell and town engineer Michael Collins agree that more must be done to prevent excessive nitrogen, found in septic systems and agricultural fertilizer, from entering local waterways — especially since nitrogen-fed algae blooms were found to be the primary cause behind last summer’s fish kill that left hundreds of thousands of bunker dead in the Peconic River.

“The plan is a good, affirmative step toward addressing this important issue,” Mr. Russell wrote in an email. “There is strong public interest in addressing this problem.”

However, both men expressed some trepidation about the DEC’s approach, particularly if the organization takes what Mr. Russell referred to as a “top-down approach.”

“The hesitation is that we want to make sure this is an inclusive process,” Mr. Russell wrote. “The governor [Andrew Cuomo] and the county executive [Steve Bellone] want ‘something’ done now. We just hope that kind of pressure doesn’t result in being issued directives to address problems and to implement solutions that might not be the best course of action.”

“This study should not lead to another ‘top-down’ approach,” he continued. “In the past, municipalities were directed to take action by higher levels of government to combat other problems like storm water mitigation. The problem was that policies were adopted and laws were passed without input from localities.”

The supervisor said he understands the need to accomplish goals, but wants the DEC to clarify those goals to correct the problem of nitrogen loading fully rather than “meet self-imposed deadlines.”

Another concern Mr. Russell and Mr. Collins share is that the DEC’s action plan is not yet based on sufficient scientific evidence. So far, Mr. Collins said the group’s suggestions have not been “actionable” because they are “not based in sound science.”

Often, they said, the DEC or another body will use decades old land-use data to draft studies about the area’s waterways.

“There has been no science-based analysis of septic impacts,” Mr. Russell wrote. “While the hearing the other day focused on finding out ‘where’ the problems existed, there should be more focus on ‘what’ the problems are.”

But with hope and sufficient input from locals, the supervisor hopes the coalition can take new steps toward addressing a critical issue.

“We can’t afford to get this one wrong,” he said.

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