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A Long Island sewer project is historic in scope. Advocates see a path for more long-term funding to protect waters

Luke Jones

A groundbreaking $223.9 million sewer project secured by federal and state funding last month will reduce nitrogen pollution, expand economic development and create hundreds of new jobs for homeowners and businesses in the Mastic-Shirley area.

Environmentalists credit Suffolk County’s historic investment, but say a reliable source of revenue is needed to make additional projects on Long Island happen in the future.

“We cannot have a future here on Long Island — in this region, this peninsula, anywhere here on Long Island — if we are not protecting water quality, if we’re not reversing the decades of decline,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

The Forge River Watershed Sewer District project, which has been at least a decade in the making, will eliminate about 1,890 cesspools and septic systems leaking excess nitrogen into the groundwater aquifer and, eventually, the Forge River in the Town of Brookhaven.

Thousands of homes in the Carlls River and Forge River watersheds are unsewered and use wastewater systems like septic tanks and cesspools. These are often outdated — newer models are nitrogen filtering — and therefore prone to capacity failure, resulting in residents needing to limit household tasks, such as dishwashing and laundry.

The infrastructure project, which Kevin McDonald, Long Island policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy, said is one of the most “ambitious environmental projects Long Island has seen in the last 40 years,” is critical toward protecting Long Island’s sole source of groundwater. The nitrogen pollution in waterways and degradation of coastal defenses threatens public health and safety, but the sewer project is a step in mitigating these concerns. He said a sustained source of funding will be needed to apply the benefits of wastewater infrastructure projects across Long Island.

“In the end, pollution is all about financing,” McDonald told WSHU’s climate podcast Higher Ground last August before millions of dollars in federal and state dollars were made available.

On the 50-year anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, Bellone said the project will modernize Suffolk County’s wastewater infrastructure with a completion date set for 2025. The project, announced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul and Bellone on January 27, is part of the $408.8 million Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency Initiative to maximize storm resilience in the county.

That funding allowed for the Mastic project, and a second long-awaited project in Babylon, to connect more than 4,200 homes in total to public sewers.

Even more money for Suffolk County’s wastewater treatment plan is anticipated from the state. In her 2023 budget, Hochul has proposed a package of environmental expenditures, including a $4 billion Environmental Bond Act, $500 million for clean water projects and $400 million annually for the Environment Protection Fund, which is $100 million more than its current funding level. The governor said much of the funding would expand state wetland protections to include an estimated one million additional acres of small, freshwater wetlands.

Environmentalists are wary of how this money will be spent. Though there is federal and state financing for the latest sewer project, Suffolk County has been sued for diverting $198 million from its taxpayer-generated wastewater management fund.

The Forge River has a near century-long history of pollution and degradation. Water quality began to decline in the mid-1980s when residential development in Mastic and Moriches rose. The area had no municipal sewage systems, which caused leaks from septic systems and fertilized lawns when it rained. It has been labeled the most polluted river on Long Island, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Nearby residents said the river smelled like a “cesspool.”

Discussion of the coastal resiliency project was a flashpoint nearly 10 years ago after Superstorm Sandy. Flood waters filled half of the area’s antiquated wastewater systems.

The sewer improvements will protect South Shore communities from coastal flooding by restoring natural resources and marshlands to reduce storm surge, State Homeland Security and Emergency Services Commissioner Jackie Bray said in a statement. Reducing nitrogen and pollutants in the watershed will help renew natural coastal wetlands, and these wetlands will serve as South Shore barriers to storm surge and flooding.

“We need to just figure out how to stop what we know is doing real harm to our bays and harbors and drinking water and at some point, you know, we have to decide what's the future we want to leave for the next few generations and whether they are going to curse us for our failures or praise us for our leadership,” McDonald said

To protect the environment from the rest of over 300,000 outdated septic systems in Suffolk County, McDonald said it’s going to take more support from local communities to get involved.

“So sometime in the next five years or more, or less, there will be a consensus and the consensus will be, ‘Let's let the public decide this issue to create this fund for the purpose of establishing a more aggressive and comprehensive water quality remediation program,’” McDonald said.

Melanie is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.
A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.
Isabel is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.