Water Quality, Carefully

What is clear is that environmental organizations and truly independent experts must be brought in before big money is committed

Water quality has been in the news this summer, thanks in part to Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone’s seizing on it in his re-election bid. Locally, there have been closures of Georgica and Hook Ponds after potentially harmful bacteria were found. At the state level, there is a bid to allow up to a fifth of future income to be skimmed off the community preservation fund for water improvement projects.

 And, looking farther back, a consultant’s study of wastewater requirements in the Town of East Hampton produced a back-of-the-napkin proposal for a sewage treatment system for a part of Montauk that is not generally known to have a water problem. There is a lot going on, but just how much reflects actual need and how much is being played for politics or is really a cloaked giveaway to developers remains murky.

As with the Army Corps of Engineers’ looming remake of the downtown Montauk oceanfront, there is no assurance that officials can be trusted to make the right — or even the legal — decision. Massive water quality initiatives would stand an equal if not greater chance of getting it wrong. Sewage treatment plants, which some in power seem ready to throw millions at, have a poor record on Long Island, and state and county oversight has lagged. Consider that in Nassau County officials want to spend more than half a billion dollars to extend a nitrogen-spewing outfall pipe from a sewage plant two miles into the Atlantic rather than try to improve the plant’s efficiency.

What is clear is that environmental organizations and truly independent experts must be brought in before big money is committed. And, in the meantime, small steps might well produce important results in the near term, as long as they are properly conceived and rigorously vetted.

Take, for example, the elevated bacteria levels frequently found at Fresh Pond, Amagansett, in samples taken by the Concerned Citizens of Montauk. The highest enterococcus concentration is consistently from a tidal creek that feeds the pond, raising suspicion about the creek’s proximity to a town restroom. A modest project to correct this might provide immediate environmental benefit if a link was found. Strengthening Suffolk County’s limits on the use of fertilizers would be important as well, perhaps expanding the law to a year-round ban for those high in nitrogen.

Another start would be for the county to adopt tough new discharge limits and numerical measures in keeping with those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. As critics have said, without standards there is no way to assure that water projects are meeting their goals. Initiatives begun in the absence of a way to gauge results could flush good money down the drain