THE BLOG

Can Long Island Be Saved? Part VIII -- IBM Unveils a Road to Long Island's Future at the Same Time That It's Business as Usual in Albany

08/04/2014 10:49 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

Here's a useful graphic from The Nature Conservancy showing the sources of nitrogen pollution in various parts of the East End of Long Island, from a report entitled Nitrogen Load Modeling -- The Peconic Estuary, New York.

The good news -- Long Island's scientists are really homing in on the problem of water pollution on Long Island, location by location:

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We have gotten to where we understand why our bays are dying, we have the data and the maps, the consensus among the scientists, the policy makers, the politicians, and, increasingly, the general public. What we have yet to determine is how our understanding of our water pollution issues and their solutions can translate into real world action.

When it comes to our addressing water quality conditions on Long Island, these are the best of times, and the worst of times. The best, because we have now a broad scientific consensus as to why our rivers, bays and ponds are dying, and with that consensus the beginning of a solution to that problem. 500,000 septic tanks on Long Island, along with lawn and agricultural fertilizers, the aging and polluting Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, along with about 200 small scale local treatment plants, have polluted our ground water, marine water and increasingly our drinking water with nitrogen. Unbridled growth and no provisions for waste water treatment in much of Long Island other than septic tanks / cesspools has led to the collapse of all our bays and their habitats. The excess nitrogen triggers harmful algal blooms. The blooms block the sun from the bottom. All the plant life dies. The decay depletes the oxygen. Fish die off or leave.

Peconic Bay, Moriches Bay, Shinnecock Bay, The Western Bays, The Great South Bay, and so forth. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation Lists almost all of Long Island's waters as impaired. The marsh grass in Jamaica Bay and everywhere, a crucial habitat for fish and birds and a key buffer against waves, is vanishing before our eyes, overgrowing and collapsing due to the excess nitrogen in the water.

The best of times -- we finally all know what the causes of all these problems are. Governor Cuomo understands it. He called for four public discussions on water quality and coastal resilience, assembling the best minds in marine science and waste water management in government, academia, and the non-profit world to do it. Over the past month, over a hundred people have spoken publicly to how we save Long Island from it's enormous ground water pollution issue.

Senator Gillibrand understands the problem, supporting Suffolk County in its winning application to IBM Smarter Cities competition. $500,000 in IBM consulting services were offered up to help Suffolk County lay the groundwork for tackling the enormous problem of replacing hundreds of thousands of antiquated septic tanks and cesspools with modern sewering and home based denitrification systems. The County Administrations understand too, with Suffolk County Executive Bellone calling the nitrogen pollution the largest threat the county has seen in decades. Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano is seeking funding to upgrade aging Nassau aging sewage treat plants. Similarly, Senator Schumer and Congressman Bishop, know that the time to address Long Island's future is now, that we need modern waste water treatment.

The best of times -- a hundred+ organizations now in The Long Island Clean Water Partnership, from zero a year ago. We are all looking at the science, and coming to the same conclusion -- the situation on Long Island is grave. Long Island can be saved, but we must act now and in concert. Everyone it seems is coming together around this reality -- Politicians embracing science, the media seeking to educate the public, with Newsday, News 12, and editors of local weekly papers all stepping up to champion clean water for Long Island, and committed to the mission of informing the public on this issue.

But it is also the worst of times -- the worst, because despite the fact that Long Islanders are coming together, up in Albany it's been business as usual.

At issue was a piece of legislation that when first drafted seemed Quixotic -- State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney (D- Lindenhurst) and State Senator Ken LaValle (R-C-I of Port Jefferson) got together and drafted and sponsored a bill that would set new nitrogen requirements for septic systems and for agricultural use. If a house was sold, it required that an antiquated system would be replaced with a system that met the new guidelines, and it called for the establishment of comprehensive plans for the Long Island watersheds, which would regulate total nitrogen loads into our waters. Basically, the bill called for doing things differently so that we would get different results.

Unfortunately the idea of doing things differently can be threatening to those who prefer to do things the way they always have. This might explain why we are still employing septic systems that look like they belong on The Flintstones. But is there really a sustainable future on Long island for unchecked suburban sprawl? Doesn't the future of Long Island's construction industry hinge on the revitalization of our downtowns and underserved neighborhoods? Is there really a farming future that necessitates over-fertilizing crops to the point that it contaminates our water supply, and fuels algal blooms, or does it hinge on transitioning to more sustainable practices and capitalizing on our proximity local high end markets?

The late-session bill passed the Assembly but never came to a vote in the Senate. Long Islanders have the right to be upset with their Senators for failing to pass this bill. But more important is recognition that this problem has not gone away just because the NY legislature is out of session. Each day, as more and more Long Islanders learn that we finally know what's been impacting our waters, and that solutions are actually at hand - the more citizens will look to leaders capable of producing results.

The great irony was at the very same time that IBM Smarter Cities was on Long Island presenting their findings as to how Long Island needed to address its water issues, The Long Island Water Quality Control Act was being squelched in Albany. The first key dependency IBM identified for Long Island's success was 'leadership.' The second key point was that our watershed needed to be managed comprehensively, pointing out the whole time the inefficiencies in our current bifurcated water management structure.

The final question posed to the panel of experts at the IBM Smarter Cities presentation was "So, given the inertia of trying to get anything big done, would the bravest of you please stand up and share your assessment on Long Island's chances of succeeding in addressing it's water quality issues?" Without even a beat, the entire The IBM stood up in unison, receiving a sustained round of applause from the audience. Then the team leader, a British scientist in her mid 50's, just choked a bit then said "you have no choice, you have to succeed."

And with that, no more business as usual. We are all in this together. A better Long Island awaits.

As the bill in Albany died, a plan on Long Island was born. Now it is truly up to Governor Cuomo's 'task force' on Water Quality and Coastal Resiliency to hold the last of its four public meetings and offer its recommendations. Will Governor Cuomo have the vision and drive to move past the Albany nonsense to protect and restore the water sole source supply of drinking water for 3 million Long islanders, and the $5 billion dollar per year cash cow coastal economy of New York State? Will Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone step up and make the sweeping agency reforms recommended by the expert panel from IBM Smarter Cities Program? If so - then best of times indeed. Between IBM and the many dozens of experts in consultation now on water quality issues, we have the very best science in the world at hand to address our problems. We need to leverage this fact. "We have to."