Nature Notes: Troubled Waters

We should never take water for granted

You may remember the R & B group Earth, Wind, and Fire. The name contains two of the classic Greek primary elements, but leaves out the third, water. In fact in googling pop music groups over the past 60 years, I can’t find any containing the word water. Yet, the more we know the more we learn — and most often after the fact — how important water is to the Earth and life. Some of the 10 to 20 million species recorded thus far in the world can survive without air; none can survive without water.

Astronomers and astrophysicists say that water came to Earth by way of collision with comets. If that theory is borne out, then we owe our existence to comets, in other words to a chance extra-terrestrial source — another reason why we should never take water for granted. And isn’t it ironic and, perhaps, prophetic that those same microscopic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that are souring both fresh and tidal waters today around the world are the very organisms we owe our lives to, as they apparently started the ball of life rolling three billion years ago?

Yet we glibly roll along developing the countryside and reproducing at a great rate — there are now 7.4 billion of us — take daily showers, run our taps, and irrigate our lawns and landscapes with little concern for water’s future well-being. Yes, one cannot get rid of all of the Earth’s water — it covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and dwells under the dry land’s surface in large reservoirs as well — but the things we dump in it every day can make it unpotable and toxic to protoplasm.

With respect to Long Island’s water, every day one reads in Newsday about 120 or so new condos to be constructed, about the reincarnation of the Nassau Coliseum, about the fabulous Ronkonkoma hub being planned, but we also read about what Grumman left in the ground in the Bethpage area, and the M.T.B.E. in Manorville’s groundwater, the fire suppressant organic chemicals left in Speonk’s and Westhampton’s underground waters, and a hundred other Superfund sites that have befouled our aquifers. 

Just recently, we read about Suffolk and Nassau Counties’ outdated water treatment regulations. They date back to the 1900s, while millions of new gallons of untreated water are added daily from multi-residence housing, factories, shopping centers, institutions, hospitals, schools to the counties’ two major sewage treatment plants. These plants take out some of the nitrogen when they are working properly, but hundreds of other chemicals pass through the treatment gamut into the sea by way of outfall pipes.

True, Suffolk County has been rigorously testing new single-family residence septic systems. It has identified a few advanced ones that remove nitrogen wastes from urine to less than 10 parts per million, the state’s regulatory level for drinking water, but do not remove much else. And, yes, the five eastern towns this November passed a referendum allowing 20 percent of the community preservation fund’s future revenue to be used to deal with water-pollution problems, but the overwhelming volume of wastewater is still passing out through these large sewage treatment plants.

In a large way, blaming antiquated dysfunctional single-family residence septic systems for the rapidly escalating over-nitrification problem of Long Island’s waters, both fresh and saline, is a subtle political ploy — the real problem is all of the collective wastewaters flowing into the sea via our large sewage treatment plants and into the ground by way of our many new “package” treatment plants.

And aren’t we close to being built-out on Long Island where single-family residences are concerned? We are to the point where for almost every new residence erected an older one is torn down. And what about all the preexisting septic systems? Are we going to pay the price to replace them at $10,000 to $20,000 a pop? It is all a political pipe dream.

Meanwhile, all the thousands of preexisting septic systems on Long Island continue to vent their flows underground. All of the urine’s nitrogenous products, detergents, medicines, skin care chemicals, and what we put on our lawns and landscapes create a giant surplus of underground pollutants that flows to the surrounding seas at an average rate of a foot a day. If your septic is two miles away from the ocean, bay, or sound, it takes 29 years for your wastewater to get there.

Wake up, people! Long Island’s underlying three aquifers, one sandwiched above the other, are already reaching non-drinkable status, yet they are the only source of potable water we three million-plus inhabitants have. Still, we merrily continue to build shopping centers, multifamily, and single-family residences, and many other water-using structures with abandon while our well-paid bureaucrats, working under the thumbs of our equally well-paid political leaders and advisers, look the other way, coming up with grandiose project after grandiose project, while pretending to meet the problem head on. Meanwhile, the trade parade continues to clog the highways, houses come and go, and we are advised to take a shower at least once a day.

Talk continues about adding another golf course, another spa, another shop

ping center, another multi-unit development, another carwash or laundromat that recycles all of its water. Each developer says his or her endeavor will not only not contaminate the groundwater but will make it pure. Has there ever been such a wunderbar development in these parts? If there has, please show me. I stand to be educated. 

About five years ago Newsday ran an op-ed column by two Stony Brook University professors, Larry Swanson and Christopher Gobler, the gist of which was that Long Island is already built-out. I saved it. I’ll be happy to send it to all of the politicians who make our laws, rules, and regulations, so they can read it afresh should they happened to have missed it.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at