By Annette Hinkle
A Conversation with…
New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele who talks about $2 million in state money which is now available for water improvement projects in the Peconic Estuary through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP).
Where does this $2 million coming from?
It’s basically from the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act passed during the Pataki administration in 1996. The $2 million represents funds that had been committed, but the projects never happened. This money is already earmarked for the Peconics. We had a line item specifically for Peconic Estuary for $30 million back in the day — $28 million has been spent — this is the rest of that.
How do you envision this $2 million being used?
What we want to see happen is a coordinated approach on the East End. We think the best use is if the towns and villages could come up with a plan. We see this as a first step and want to be in it for the long haul.
Listening to the village board in Sag Harbor, they want to do a septic rebate program. This money would be eligible for those kinds of things. In my opinion municipalities need to be better at a comprehensive approach. We went through a period of excellent coordination with Pine Barrens preservation in Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. Everyone was committed to regional efforts. Maybe it’s the unavailability of resources, but it does seem local governments are more parochial now and looking solely within their borders. This problem isn’t going to get solved that way.
[State Senator Ken] Lavalle and I will try to foster coordination between the Peconic Estuary Program and the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association and put some mechanism in place to facilitate it. The estuary program has lost some momentum and energy in my opinion. I don’t think it’s the fault of the people there, but a lack of resources devoted on all levels of government.
Are our water quality issues unique to the East End?
I don’t think it’s unique to the East End — it’s really all of Long Island and related to increased problems with surface waters and ground waters. If I was going to put a time frame on it, between 1985 — the first year brown tide showed up — to maybe 2005, a lot of progress was made through the Peconic Estuary Program. We also had the quarter percent sales tax program for drinking water started in the late ‘80s, and community preservation fund to preserve land starting in the ‘90s.
In ‘96 with the $1.75 billion bond act, Sag Harbor’s wastewater treatment plant was upgraded and the Riverhead plant was upgraded. I think we made a lot of progress. There were many years when we didn’t have the brown tide and reopened shellfish areas that hadn’t been open before.
But why does it seem that water quality issues are in the forefront again now?
A couple things – around 2003 or ‘04, we ran out of bond act money. The $1.75 billion — everything had been spoken for. That money was never replaced. The Environmental Protection Fund, our annual pay as you go environmental fund, was also cut several times during the recession. If you look at environmental bond acts, we had one in 1972, one in 1986 and one in 1996. But there’s been no new bond act in 17 years. That’s the longest since the ‘70s.
I think as far as infrastructure we’re in need of things like storm water abatement and sewage treatment upgrades. The demand is there, but there’s no money. Certainly there’s no federal clean water money which paid for 75 percent of sewer district upgrades. I think in spite of all the efforts we’ve made locally, that lack of capital funding is a problem.
But we also have too much nitrogen and pollution in the system that needs to be addressed. The other factor with algal blooms is, I think, climate change. I think it’s a combination of warmer waters and increased nutrients. What it boils down to is we’ve had a lot of major initiatives and what’ve we succeeded in doing is slowing it down — but not stopping it.
So in addition to this $2 million do we have any new money for water quality projects coming down the pike?
I’m a cosponsor of bill to get a $5 billion bond act on the ballot for next November. Locally, a big focus has to be on septic systems. If we get that bond act, that’s where the money can come from for septic systems.
This act also creates green jobs – whether it’s upgrading sewage treatment plants or building new septic systems, I look at that bond act not only as a way to improve water quality, but also a way of creating jobs.
Information and application guidance on the WQIP and the special $2 million pot for the Peconic Estuary can be found online at: dec.ny.gov/pubs/4774.html. Deadline for submission is November 8.