Restore our Bays: Applying Innovative Advanced Nitrogen Reducing Technologies to Long Island Septic Systems.
Nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements in nature and is essential to life. Almost 78% of the atmosphere is comprised of the inert nitrogen gas, N2, and nitrogen can be found in every strand of a living organism’s DNA. But what happens when humans add so much nitrogen to the environment that it tips the delicate balance of marine ecosystems?
In the last few decades, substantial nitrogen “loading” or nitrogen pollution has threatened native species and increased the frequency of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Long Island Sound. Under normal conditions, algae are harmless and essential components of the marine food web. Nitrogen acts as a food for algae, but too much nitrogen can cause algae to grow exponentially, triggering harmful toxins. This release of harmful toxins by algae is known as HABs.
Surface runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizer from residential yards and agricultural areas compounded with the direct release of nitrogen-rich raw sewage into groundwater from outdated septic systems have exacerbated poor water quality conditions across the Sound. Along the North Shore of Nassau County, septic systems contribute more than half of nitrogen deposited in bays. Nitrogen from septic systems on the North Shore has been named the number one cause of harmful algae blooms, fish kills, thick mats of seaweed and the decline of a once-thriving shellfish industry.
What can we do to Restore our Bays?
In 2017, Governor Cuomo announced a $75 million fund to provide homeowners with financial incentives to replace aging septic systems. 67% of these funds have been dedicated for Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program (SIP). Through these funds, homeowners can be eligible for a grant of up to $10,000 to replace failing septic systems with new, nitrogen-reducing Innovative Advanced (IA) septic systems.
A conventional septic system works by draining raw sewage from a residence to a septic tank. In the septic tank, solids are settled out and liquids flow into a leaching pool or cesspool rings to distribute liquids into the ground. These nitrogen-rich liquids often flow into surrounding groundwater which transports directly into surface waterways. IA septic systems block this flow of nitrogen-rich liquids by adding a biological processing step. In new IA units, biological-processing bacteria convert harmful nitrogen found in sewage (NO3-) into unreactive N2 gas. IA units significantly reduce the amount of harmful nitrogen entering waterways.
Katherine Coughlin has been hired through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the North Shore Land Alliance, to aid homeowners in the SIP grant application process and navigation of the IA market. In this position, Kat will help to jumpstart the transition to clean water technology as markets adjust to providing IA systems. This position was funded through an 18-month grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Long Island Sound Futures Fund.
Bays, harbors and beaches are an important part of life on Long Island. If we do not come together as a community and protect our water resources, then water quality will only get worse. Over the next few weeks, more information about the SIP grant application process will be available on the Land Alliance’s website at www.northshorelandalliance.org. It is time we make a change to protect our local treasures so future generations can enjoy them as well.