The following was published on Long Island Business News’ Young Island on 3.6.13. The post can be found here
Sewers are important. It may be gross to think about, but what we do with our poop is an important component to planning for Nassau and Suffolk’s futures.
On Long Island, our development should be dictated by the carrying capacity of our sole source aquifer. However, that isn’t always the case. With every house, office and store we build, there are direct impacts to our drinking and surface waters.
Sewers, like the Long Island Rail Road and roads, can help drive economic growth. The successes of so many of our “cool downtown” areas are contingent upon where our wastewater flows once we flush. In fact, many policymakers see sewers as a silver-bullet solution to Long Island’s economic and environmental woes.
So why doesn’t all of Long Island just build sewers and move on? The good news is that almost all of Nassau County primarily has them already; it’s Suffolk County that’s the issue. Suffolk only has them in select areas encompassing about 30 percent of the county give or take.
While an important component of Long Island’s future regional success, sewers are unfortunately not always the magic solution to our economic and environmental woes they are touted to be. Like everything else, we must use wastewater treatment appropriately. Sewers are costly and, thanks to fiscal scandals in the 1970s, not exactly palatable to an already over-taxed public.
Further, sewage plants require maintenance and regulation. A mismanaged wastewater plant is just as harmful to water quality as a subdivision-reliant upon cesspools. These are realities that must be embraced before sewers should be built, and it’s up to policymakers and state agencies to ensure each plant complies with water standards.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the aquifer is generally cleaner in Nassau County, but groundwater levels are lower than they are in Suffolk. The reason behind the lower water levels is that sewering requires ample water usage. In Suffolk County, the use of septic tanks and cesspools helps to keep the groundwater levels higher, but a tad more degraded in the higher levels of the aquifer closer to the surface. It is important to note that throughout Nassau and Suffolk, our drinking water is near pristine, but poor land use policies can threaten this status in the coming decades. This is why sound planning practices are so essential.
Across all of Long Island, our sewers discharge in one of two ways. If located on the coast, the plant discharges out to sea within the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound or Great South Bay. If there is a sewage plant inland, odds are it is a “package plant” that discharges directly into groundwater. When properly treated and maintained, this effluent isn’t a huge issue, but this again highlights the importance of proper regulation.
In summary, sewers are a critical piece of Long Island’s regional development. To further develop our downtowns, we need to install the necessary wastewater infrastructure in order to set in place one piece of the puzzle that allows for higher densities (the other missing piece is road capacity). On Long Island, land use is dictated by the aquifers where we draw our drinking water, and sewers can help curb degradation of this precious resource. However, they are not the be-all, end-all solution some tout them to be.
When formulating policy, it is important to understand the downsides of every option, and sewers are no different.
Richard Murdocco is the principal grantwriter for Community Development Corporation of Long Island. Follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea or email him at email@example.com.