Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

Red and Brown

Posted on 19 August 2011

By Karl Grossman

“We’re at the tipping point,” says Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister. Indeed, considering what has happened to bays in Suffolk County this spring and summer, we’ve tipped downward. It’s imperative for public health, the environment and economy here that this be reversed. The problem in a word: nitrogen. The leading cause of changes to our bays — their turning red and brown from various forms of algae — is human waste containing nitrates moving from septic tanks and cesspools.

It began ominously in May with the waters of western Shinnecock and Quantuck Bays turning red. They had been hit with red algae — a particularly nasty strain called Alexandrium that produces a neurotoxin which can cause numbness and temporary paralysis in humans, and in rare cases can be fatal.

The red algae influx caused the state Department of Environmental Conservation to close this stretch of south shore bays to shellfish harvesting and warn residents not to consume shellfish from them. It’s “a human health hazard,” explained Dr. Christopher Gobler, associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Earlier, waterways to the west were hit with the same red algae. Northport Bay has had to be closed for four of the last five years as a result. Now eastern Suffolk has been struck.

Alexandrium is a cold water species and when water temperature reaches 70 degrees it dissipates. And it did — but to be replaced in Shinnecock and Quantuck and adjacent bays with brown tide. Once sparkling, clear blue water first became red, then coffee brown.

Brown tide isn’t harmful to humans but it devastates shellfish and also marine vegetation by blocking sunlight. In 1985, it all but wiped out the nationally-famed Peconic Bay scallop. It also decimated the eel grass where scallops live and grow. Slowly, very slowly, with massive seeding of bays with scallop spawn, the Peconic Bay scallop has begun to make something of a comeback.

But since 1985 brown tide has returned to the Peconic Bay system and arrived at other Suffolk bays — including the Great South Bay, once the source of 60 percent of hard clams consumed in the United States.

“What we are seeing today is the result of the increased development,” says Baykeeper. McAllister. The cesspools at the thousands of new houses are discharging nitrates to the groundwater — into the sole source aquifer on which all of Long Island is dependent. And the nitrate-loaded groundwater moves to bays and other waterways. “The travel time is slow, a couple of feet a day. But eventually it will get there.”

Mr. McAllister is calling for the shift here to “state-of-the-art denitrification systems,” advanced waste systems now available and being utilized all over the U.S. These systems, he says, should be mandated for all new construction and, when a house is sold, a “retrofit” should be required of the existing septic tank and cesspool system to a denitrification system. The Peconic Baykeeper’s analysis of the situation and plan for action is summarized in a report, “Nutrient Pollution: A Plague to Our Waters.” It’s available at:

The call of the Peconic Baykeeper must be heeded at the state, county, town and village levels.

Dr. Gobler and his colleagues have also concluded that nitrogen is the key cause to what is occurring. In April, at a symposium at Stony Brook Southampton, they presented their extensive research.

“We now know the problem and the solutions,” announced Dr. Gobler. The solutions included reducing new housing density and use of the new denitrification systems. “They’re just as effective as sewage treatment,” he emphasized.

In a recent academic paper, Dr. Gobler noted that from 1987 to 2005, levels of nitrogen in Suffolk groundwater jumped from 40% to 200%. “These are large changes for such a brief period of time,” he wrote. And the reason: the “human population explosion” here and how peoples’ waste is disposed of.

It’s a classic case of Pogo’s admonition: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We must move to make peace with nature for the sake of the bays and marine life and our lives. “And if we don’t wake up and restore these waters, we’re going to be hit in the pocket book,” warns Baykeeper McAllister. “Let these waters degrade — what’s going to happen to the second-home economy?” People will be reluctant to vacation in a Suffolk County of red and brown waters.

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