Money for New Septic Systems

A program proposed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone would provide grants and low-interest financing to help homeowners replace antiquated septic systems with new ones that remove nitrogen, which has been identified as a major cause of surface and groundwater pollution.

Part of Mr. Bellone’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative, which has targeted water pollutants, the proposal will be the subject of an April 25 hearing before the County Legislature, which must approve it before it can take effect.

If approved, applications would be accepted from property owners starting in July. Funding — $2 million annually through 2021 — would come from a county reserve fund, following voters’ approval of a 2014 referendum that authorized its use for nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Representatives from a number of regional environmental groups have voiced their approval of the proposal.

“We are an island — our bays, creeks, harbors and rivers, along with the sole-source aquifer beneath our feet, make up the very engine that drives our economy,” Legislator Bridget Fleming said in a release. “But for decades we have made the mistake of ignoring the detrimental impact that septic discharge had on our waters. This important program is a critical step to addressing these issues.” Ms. Fleming thanked Mr. Bellone for “partnering with local municipal governments, and leading the charge in implementing this program to reduce the nitrogen pollution that threatens our way of life.”

Grants of up to $11,000 would help homeowners — approximately 400 in the program’s first two years — to cover the cost of an advanced technology system, estimated to be between $14,500 and $17,500. Homeowners could qualify for low-cost financing to cover the remainder of the cost, at a 3 percent fixed interest rate over 15 years.

In-kind replacement of traditional cesspool or septic systems, which do not eliminate nitrogen, costs an estimated $6,000 to $8,000, according to the county. Experts believe there are more than 360,000 sub-par cesspools and septics in the county, and that tens of thousands of improved wastewater systems will have to be installed to cope effectively with declining water quality.

“This financing model provides an affordable means for working and middle-class homeowners to improve their water infrastructure, clean our environment, and ultimately increase home property values,” Mr. Bellone stated in a release.

East Hampton Town is drafting its own septic system rebate program, which could cover the entire cost, up to $15,000, of installing nitrogen-reducing septic systems in high-priority, environmentally sensitive areas of the town. Rebates of up to 75 percent of a new system’s cost could be available to other town residents who meet income-based eligibility requirements. The money would come from the 20-percent portion of the community preservation fund that is earmarked for water quality initiatives. 

Along with the rebate program, the town is planning to require that new construction or substantial reconstruction will use the new-generation septic systems.

Since December 2014, the county has overseen a pilot program to test new wastewater treatment technologies, selecting 42 homeowners to receive a system at no cost in order to assess the efficacy of various technologies. As tests are completed, the health department is expected to approve additional systems for use. Thus far the department, which sets regulations for septic waste treatment, has given provisional approval to three different nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems.

County officials will present details of the septic replacement incentive program in the coming weeks at a series of meetings that will include comments from water quality experts and local officials. The first such meeting will be held in Flanders on April 24, at the David W. Crohan Community Center, at a time to be announced.

Residents can also direct questions about the new septic systems and the financing program, including questions regarding eligibility, to the Suffolk County Health Department, by email to septicdemo@suffolkcountyny.gov.