Nitrogen: The Great Evil Incarnate...NOT Really!
On mud flats in Delaware Bay the morning after a full moon high tide spawn, thousands of horseshoe crabs wait on the mud flats for the high tide to return. (Credit: Conor McGowan, US Geological Survey)
Nitrogen is everywhere — around us and in us. The atmosphere is 79% nitrogen, and nitrogenous bases are a key component of the amino acids which compose our DNA. It is an essential nutrient for plant growth on which all life depends. Here on Long Island, nitrogen in estuarine waters spurs photosynthetic activity — the foundational process associated with coastal estuarine marine food chains, fostering one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth.
So nitrogen is an essential part of our lives. But like everything, when there is an excess of nitrogen in specific forms, it can become a pollutant spurring on algal growth and potentially destroy our precious coastline.
Over the last five years, nitrogen has received a bad rap. Unfortunately, the solutions offered to combat excess nitrogen in our waters are either misguided or may be worse than the problem.
In 2009, distinguished scientist Dr. Ivan Valiela published a report identifying the contributions of nitrogen to coastal waters on Long Island. The report focused on four important causes to excess nitrogen: wastewater, agriculture, lawn-care run-off, and atmospheric conditions. The report prompted a lot of debate. Most of the environmental community in Suffolk County got behind the view that the main culprit was our septic tank system.
To be sure, septic systems are the easiest to blame. These systems are getting old and they do leak if they are not properly maintained. Since there are fewer water sewerage treatment plants in Suffolk County as there are in Nassau and NYC, the main attention over the last 5–10 years has been on the 390,000 homeowners with these individualized septic systems.
On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. Septic systems on Long Island contribute an estimated 45% of the excess nitrogen to our waters. We will never totally eliminate some excess nitrogen from septic systems, but by my calculation with proper maintenance we could remove 75% of that. Carefully managed septic systems which are low in cost and require minimal maintenance can be highly beneficial without harming the ground water. They can also recharge the aquifer, and are especially effective in low-density areas where public sewers are neither available nor feasible.
Yet, the politically correct mantra for the last five years has been that septic systems leak and are the major factor contributing nitrogen to rivers, groundwater, estuaries and bays — contributing to massive, hazardous algal blooms, fish kills, and degraded water quality. The science suggests that these events as recently as 2015 and 2016 were due to a domino effect of physical and biological phenomena not completely caused by septic leak. Nonetheless, DEC Regional Chief Peter Scully recently noted that the solution to our problems is to replace the 390,000 “aging” septic systems initially through a “lottery” where homeowners pay up to $25,000 to have new “more efficient” systems installed.
In addition, the Long Island Regional Planning Council has sought assistance in analyzing Nassau County surface water quality data with the intent of replacing septic systems with “innovative/advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems.” In other words, the LIRPC has embraced the consensus view that the real enemy is our septic tank system, and not larger forces at work on Long Island.
**The main impacts on our ecosystem on Long Island is overdevelopment, not the septic systems that the roughly 400,000 households in Suffolk County use. If we are not going to curb development, and we don’t intend to install a proper water sewerage treatment system the way the rest of the metropolitan region has, then implementing a proper incentive for Suffolk’s homeowners rather than a “lottery” system is the way to go.
Only the independent homeowner can make the difference. Their path to environmental protection is to have an economic incentive, rather than misinforming them into paying the freight for septic system “upgrades”. Their buy-in for environmental protection and restoration must not be burdensome. An economic relief from government by incentivizing self-maintenance of septic systems, will be far better for LI and all its residents in the long run. #
Dr. John Tanacredi is Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies in the Department of Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Studies and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring (CERCOM) at Molloy College.