With pollutant levels in bays and other surface waters on the rise, tied largely to septic systems, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said Tuesday that officials must work to address the perception that installing sewage treatment plants will necessarily result in increased density.
“One is a water quality issue, one is a zoning issue,” he said. “We have to decouple it.”
Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, told the East Hampton Town Board at a work session on Tuesday that “nutrient pollution” has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency as the leading cause of water quality decline across the United States, and that “all points are leading to septic.”
On Long Island, he said, the entire south shore of Suffolk County has been included in the federal and state “impaired waters” list, with the causes identified as septic waste and stormwater runoff.
A study of the DNA in water contaminants, conducted by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, revealed that 97 percent of the waste found in waters in East Hampton’s Northwest area was from a human source, Mr. McAllister said. “So that suggests to me we’ve probably got failing septic systems in Northwest.”
Other waters in the town that “could be susceptible to septic issues,” he said, are Accabonac Harbor and the south end of Lake Montauk.
“Suffolk County has largely ignored this problem for years,” Mr. McAllister said. He said that the County Health Department’s standards for septic systems, which the town relies on in its own regulations, are antiquated and not stringent enough. “It’s a very primitive approach to wastewater.”
Suffolk municipalities, Mr. McAllister told the town board, should press the county to accept the use of septic systems based on more advanced technology, such as is done in other areas of the country. He asked for the board’s help in “advancing reform in Suffolk County.”
In addition, he told the board, “You have the authority to have more restrictive regulations if you so choose.”
“We have to do better for these water resources.” In areas of particular concern or fragility, he said, neighborhood sewage treatment plants, taking up no more than the area of one building lot, could be installed. It could be costly, Mr. McAllister acknowledged, but “we’re going to pay now or we’re going to pay very dearly later.”
“Ultimately, land use is intrinsically connected to water quality,” he said. Mr. Wilkinson said that dealing with the perception that sewage treatment to protect ground and surface waters from pollution by existing septic systems will lead to more building has been “one of my frustrations.”
“Resolving that is a critical issue in our public debate,” Councilman Dominick Stanzione commented.
Mr. McAllister agreed that the two issues should be looked at separately. “We’ve got to strive for cleaner water, but at the same time we’ve got to deal with quality of life issues,” such as traffic and density, he said.
The town board recently agreed to appoint Mr. McAllister to the technical committee on Lake Montauk watershed management. A resolution formalizing the appointment is expected to be approved tonight.