Suffolk Closeup

by Karl Grossman |

Sewage treatment plants all over Long Island are discharging wastewater into bays, rivers, the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. This reduces the quantity of our water — all of which comes from the underground water table below.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Of the nearly 200 sewage treatment plants in Suffolk County, most perform “tertiary” treatment of waste— extensive cleansing — and the effluent then is “recharged” back into the ground. This way there is no water loss.

But most of those are small private plants, mainly built for housing developments.

Most of the larger sewage treatment plants in Suffolk send wastewater into waterways. This is not unlike the way sewage was handled centuries ago in ancient Rome, home of sewering.

Again, it doesn’t have to be that way — even with bigger plants.

Take the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant, which last year began sending treated effluent to the county’s adjoining Indian Island Golf Course instead of into Flanders Bay, as was the practice for years.

“The microbiology of the soil is pretty aggressive and will render the effluent harmless,” notes Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue, a fourth-generation Long Island farmer with a degree in plant science. The change in Riverhead, he said, “really sets an example.”

Or consider Suffolk County’s sewage treatment plant at its Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.

The plant does tertiary treatment and recharges the effluent back into the ground.

The Village of Westhampton Beach is now in the process of establishing a sewer district to be hooked into the Gabreski plant—its capacity increased, but continuing to recharge.

Krupski — along with some other public officials in Suffolk — is concerned about the way most wastewater from sewage plants is dealt with on Long Island: pumped into waterways.  Instead, as Krupski emphasizes, “we need to keep the groundwater in the ground.”

Long Island naturalist John Turner, who with the Islip-based Seatuck Environmental Association, where he is a conservation policy advocate, points to neighboring Nassau County where, he says, all sewage treatment plants “discharge into coastal waters.”

As a result, there has been a drying up of streams and creeks and the lowering of lakes because of the loss of quantity in the water table. Further, saltwater intrusion into the set of aquifers that comprise the water table has happened, destroying the potability of some of Nassau’s freshwater.

In Suffolk, the sewage plant discharging the greatest volume of wastewater into a waterway is the county’s Bergen Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Babylon, built to send 30 million gallons of wastewater a day through an outfall pipe into the Atlantic Ocean for the county’s Southwest Sewer District.

There is now a drive by the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone to expand the boundaries of the Southwest Sewer District.

Bellone has also been pushing for piping the wastewater from the massive proposed Ronkonkoma Hub, to the Bergen Point plant, miles away, and out to sea.

The Hub is to be a $600 million complex of 1,450 apartments and many offices and retail stores.

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, as a county legislator and now town supervisor has been — and like Krupski is — very concerned about the discharge of wastewater into waterways and has urged instead a sewage treatment plant with recharge for the Hub.

“We don’t need to pump wastewater out into bays and the Long Island Sound and ocean,” says Romaine. “Sewage treatment plants should recharge wastewater back into the ground. We need to be concerned about the quantity of water as well as quality.”

Although the county’s Bergen Point Treatment Plant sends the most wastewater out into a waterway, also doing this include: Patchogue Sewage Treatment Plant, which discharges into the Patchogue River (and the area which it serves is also being proposed to be expanded); Port Jefferson Sewage Treatment Plant, which discharges into the Long Island Sound; Greenport Village Sewage Treatment Plant that also discharges into the Sound; Village of Northport Wastewater Treatment Plant which discharges into the Sound, too; Shelter Island Heights Wastewater Treatment Plant which discharges into Shelter Island Sound; and the Sag Harbor Wastewater Treatment Plant that discharges into Sag Harbor Bay.      .

Turner is seeking a “consensus on the island for an islandwide water reuse feasibility study” that could be a “blueprint and roadmap for the implementation of water recycling programs.”

He states that “wastewater has been reliably and safely used” in states including California and Florida, as well as in the Southwest.

Indeed, Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder notes that in Palm Harbor, Fla., west of Tampa, where she has a vacation home, treated wastewater is pumped to residents and businesses for irrigation and other uses.

“I water my lawn there with the reclaimed water,” she says. “It’s a win-win.” Pinellas County Utilities, which operates the William E. Dunn Water Reclamation Facility, points out on its website that the “reclaimed water” is carried in a “separate reclaimed water pipe system…identified by the color purple.”

A major contributor of wastewater to the Port Jefferson Sewage Treatment Plant — and then through its outfall into the Sound — is Stony Brook University with its 25,000 students, 2,400 faculty and 14,500 staff.

It’s a small city, the largest single-site employer on Long Island.

Turner suggests that instead of having all that waste from Stony Brook University piped to Port Jefferson and discharged into the Sound, that it be used on a nearby golf course — the St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Setauket

“That would make good sense,” Turner says.

Indeed, it would.

Hooray for purple pipes. Hooray for reclaimed water and its uses including now the irrigation of the Indian Island Golf Course in Riverhead. Hooray for sewage treatment plants that recharge treated effluent into the ground — rather than having it lost by discharges into waterways.

Both the quality and quantity of our water table below — Long Island’s precious and indispensable reservoir — must be carefully safeguarded.

This is the second installment of Suffolk Closeup exploring water quality and quantity issues on Long Island. Click below for part one.

Column: We must not be like Queens and Brooklyn, which lost its drinking water