By Karl Grossman
Is the “new normal” for Long Island bays to be colored brown and red from algae blooms and for drinking water to be problematic? Last month, Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences arranged a seminar at Stony Brook Southampton titled: “What Is the Fate of Long Island’s Coastal Ecosystems in the Face of the New Normal?”
The “new normal” as detailed by Professor Gobler and Stony Brook graduate students focused on events of last year which started with shellfish beds in bays across Long Island needing to be closed because of algae blooms. Then red tide hit waters including Peconic Bay, Shelter Island Sound, Sag Harbor Cove and Gardiners Bay. With summer came a fish kill in Aquebogue. By fall, large numbers of scallops seen in the spring had died. Contamination by nitrogen—especially from sewage and pesticides—and other pollutants was cited.
Two weeks later, environmentalists launched a campaign to “reverse declining water quality” on Long Island “and protect the underground aquifer for the future.” That came at a conference—that included Dr. Gobler—at which a decline in both surface waters and drinking water was discussed.
“Beach closings, shellfish die-offs and the brown and red tides paint a dramatic picture of the decline of coastal and inland water bodies and we must address this crisis immediately,” Kevin McDonald, natural resources director for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, declared at it.
“On Long Island, our economic prosperity, public health and safety, and quality of life rely upon a clean and sustainable supply of drinking water,” said the report issued at the conference. “Similarly, as an island blessed with bays, harbors and beaches on every shore, the quality of our surface waters defines our outdoor experience. Without these assets, Long Island would lose its unique sense of place and a substantial portion of its economic well-being. Protection and restoration of our Long Island water resources will define our future as a community in the next decade.”
The report stressed how “drinking water and our surface waters share a vital connection. Our underground aquifers store the only source of fresh drinking water…Whatever goes into underground aquifers will eventually reach other water resources: the bays and harbors, lakes, ponds and streams.”
It told of how “recently published studies show clearly that much of Long Island’s shallowest aquifer—the Upper Glacial—is simply no longer safe to drink.” Below it, “the Magothy, the source of most of our drinking water, is experiencing an alarming increase in contaminants like nitrogen and pesticides.” Meanwhile, some “coastal communities have tapped into our deepest and oldest of aquifers, the Lloyd aquifer. However, this ancient aquifer is small and water is currently being withdrawn from it at rates that are already resulting in salt-water intrusion of wellheads, jeopardizing water supplies of tens of thousands.”
What is happening should come as no surprise. My family lived in Sayville starting in the 1960s and we went boating on the Great South Bay. In the early 70s, with increased development of that part of western Suffolk, what had been a beautiful, fruitful bay—60 percent of America’s hard clams came from it—turned murky. The clams began a calamitous decline. We sailed our boat (and ultimately moved) in the 70s to the East End with its clear waters. Then, in just one decade, in 1985, a massive influx of brown tide struck the Peconic-Gardiners Bay System. The Peconic Bay scallop—a nationally relished delicacy like the clams of Great South Bay and also a multi-million dollar fishery—was all but destroyed. It’s been touch-and-go ever since.
A “Water Action for Long Island” plan advanced by the environmentalists includes: “Reduce fertilizer loads and require advanced treatment upgrades to sewage treatment plants and septic systems…Establish an adequately funded, unified regulatory entity for Long Island’s water-resources management” and “implement a comprehensive, effective, enforceable and affordable clean-water action plan.” Create “a septic system upgrade program.” Formulate “education strategies…Create and advance a land protection plan focused on water quality and watershed protection” and “citizens and businesses must phase out the use of” of hazardous waste products “and find and develop suitable alternatives.”
The possible “new normal” is unhealthy, uneconomic and thoroughly unacceptable.