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Nitrogen-Reducing Septic Systems for Public Restrooms

Wed, 08/02/2023 - 18:22

East Hampton Town must walk the walk when it comes to improving water quality, by replacing existing septic systems with “innovative alternative” systems that remove nitrogen, the town board was told on Tuesday.

Mellissa Winslow of the Natural Resources Department, the town’s principal environmental analyst, updated the board as to “how the town is really leading by example with upgrading our town-owned municipal facilities to innovative alternative, low-nitrogen sanitary systems.” Such systems can reduce nitrogen and effluent by more than 70 percent, she said.

Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences told the Suffolk County Legislature last week that the root cause of a collapse of shellfisheries and eelgrass is “an overloading of nitrogen from land to sea, and that overload of nitrogen is coming from wastewater.”

Both the town and the county offer incentives for residential and commercial property owners to upgrade septic systems, and the town board biannually awards grants for upgrade projects, under the portion of community preservation fund money that can be allocated to water quality improvement projects.

“We have started with prioritizing all of the town-owned facilities,” Ms. Winslow said, including in Sag Harbor and East Hampton Villages, both of which contribute to the C.P.F. There are 49 priority systems in the town, she said, 14 in East Hampton Village and one in Sag Harbor. They are ranked by need, use, location, and ease of installation. “Highest-priority sites tend to be comfort station facilities, which have the highest public use,” she said.

Five upgrades have been completed, “and we’re working on many more,” Ms. Winslow added. In Montauk, completed upgrades are at the West Lake comfort station and the east comfort station at Lions Field; in Amagansett, at the comfort station in the municipal parking lot; in East Hampton Village, at the comfort station at Herrick Park, and in Wainscott, at the playing fields on Stephen Hand’s Path.

An upgrade at the Springs Youth Center is imminent, Councilman David Lys said, and bids have been awarded for restrooms at the Maidstone Park ball field and pavilion in that hamlet. Those upgrades are to be done in the fall. Also due to be put out for bids this fall are Second House and the comfort station at South Lake Drive, both in Montauk.

Some planned upgrades are on hold due to constraints or obstacles, including at Ditch Plain in Montauk, Atlantic Avenue Beach and Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, Gann Road in Springs, and Havens Beach in Sag Harbor. “Particularly at comfort stations at beaches, there can be a pretty big area of disturbance,” Ms. Winslow explained, “and we want to limit the amount of vegetation we have to remove to install these systems, so we have to be more careful at these sites.”

Depth to groundwater can also limit and complicate an installation. “We’ve held off a bit on Ditch, as it has very shallow groundwater,” she said, “until we can identify the best possible solution.” Limited space has also delayed a septic system upgrade at the Police Department substation in Montauk.

Comfort station septic systems must also be at least 200 feet from potable wells, Ms. Winslow told the board. At the Fresh Pond and Big Albert’s public restrooms in Amagansett, “we will likely need to either hook up to public water or install new potable water wells that meet that separation.”

Ms. Winslow asked for the board’s approval for a monitoring program to ensure that upgraded systems are functioning effectively and do not require modifications. Each sample collection and analysis would cost an estimated $2,345, she said. Upgraded systems will also require maintenance.

Councilwoman Cate Rogers called the program “another giant step in helping improve our water quality. As we know,” she said, “we do have water quality issues across the town.”

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