Enthusiasm Outpaces the Science on Water Plan

East Hampton Town will start accepting applications on Sept. 1 from homeowners who want to replace their septic systems or cesspools with state-of-the-art low-nitrogen alternatives. However, lacking even the most rudimentary test data and without a science-based plan for rolling out the new program, the effort could end up with a lot of money being spent with few results to show for it.

Defining the problem with water quality and agreeing on what success would look like should be the first step. However, despite all the attention being paid to water quality, even these basic elements remain hard to define. According to the town, success might be measured by the reopening of shellfishing grounds and the handful of closed bathing beaches. But nothing in the law authorizing the rebates specifically targets the town’s few known problem areas. Nor does it provide for baseline testing so that the efficacy of nitrogen-reducing technology can even be measured.

Officials agree as almost an article of faith that nitrogen is the culprit in undesired environmental changes in the marine ecosystem on eastern Long Island, though there is a troubling absence of localized empirical evidence to support this conclusion. If this were a medical trial, there is no way a product based on so much supposition would make it past the Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to the rebates, the town will soon order that all new residential and commercial construction, as well as alterations that are deemed substantial, will have to include low-nitrogen waste systems. This, too, might be warranted, but it is irresponsible for the town to impose additional costs on property owners on an assumption, rather than on actual, hard-numbers evidence. Meanwhile, the town has ignored a federal order that long ago required that large commercial cesspools be phased out by 2005. 

The East Hampton program’s flaws will be exacerbated by the nature of the rebate program, which will draw on money from the community preservation fund. Because participation is voluntary, the effort will, at best, result in a patchwork with very little to show for all the expense. At worst, 5 or 10 years from now, the public might see continued water degradation, conclude that the plan was a failure, and end funding altogether. 

There are some glimmers of hope. The East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department is embarking on a limited nitrogen-test regime for Accabonac Harbor. And a town water improvement consultant working on several projects has long called for baseline testing before work begins. 

Also, in a recent statement, Sean O’Neill, the Peconic Baykeeper, argued for setting a regulatory limit on the amount of nitrogen entering the ecosystem and then working toward that goal. Mr. O’Neill pointed out that more than $4 billion already has been spent on water quality on Long Island, and he rightly asks why conditions are getting worse, not better. Money alone, he said, without strict controls that mandate actual reduction in loads, does nothing to improve water quality. 

These points seem to be falling on deaf ears, as elected officials pat themselves on the back for the rebates and construction mandates. It is unfortunately obvious that the policy has gotten out ahead of the science. There is time to catch up, but that might mean holding off on handing out those rebate checks until after the data is assembled and analyzed. That might be bad politics, but it is the right way to assure the program’s success.