July 17, 2013

An Anniversary Worth Remembering

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, landmark state legislation that protects drinking water and critical habitat in Long Island's premier ecosystem that lies at the gateway to the East End – in Southampton, Riverhead and eastern Brookhaven. It's important for two huge reasons.

First, it represents a coming together of disparate environmental, civic and business interests to end the juggernaut of development with the declaration "the pavement stops here."

The Pine Barrens sit atop a huge supply of pure drinking water and boast the greatest diversity of plants and animals anywhere in New York State. It's the Central Park of Long Island – 100,000 acres of greenery through which everyone must pass on their way to the East End.

The Pine Barrens was saved after a battle of many years, which included the largest environmental lawsuit in state history and a carefully-crafted plan that made 55,000 acres, off limits to development with another 45,000 where development was permitted, but strictly limited. The "War of the Woods" ended in 1993 with unanimous passage of a law that protects groundwater important both to clean drinking water and the lakes, rivers, bays and beaches that make the East End so special.

For two decades, a regional commission has ended the development-at-any-cost tradition and led the way for progressive legislation such as the Peconic Bay Region's Community Preservation Fund which ensures that open space and farmland will be protected at points east of the Pine Barrens as well.

The voters and taxpayers of Suffolk County and the East End have voluntarily put up more than a billion dollars to protect our land and water, so that the East End will never suffer upisland suburban sprawl.

This leads to the second and perhaps more significant reason that the Pine Barrens Protection Act is so important. Today, water quality across Long Island is declining precipitously; 40 to 200 percent in the top two aquifers on which Long Island depends for its drinking and surface water quality. Fewer than 50 percent of Long Islanders know where their water comes from or where it goes when they're done with it. The answer is – the first, federally-designated Sole Source Aquifer – a system of underground reservoirs which have been contaminated mostly by nitrogen from sewage and fertilizers that find their way into the groundwater as a result of human activity on the surface. We're seeing more brown tide, more red tide, more beach and shellfish bed closings as a result of the wastewater that is discharged into groundwater.

Now, a huge coalition of environmental and civic groups have formed the Long Island Partnership for Clean Water, headed by such prominent groups as Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Group for the East End, The Nature Conservancy and our Pine Barrens Society. Our goal is to reverse the decline in water quality and prevent further contamination. We mean to do this by winning approval of state legislation that will set a much stricter standard for wastewater discharge and establish an entity with the authority to enforce water protection island-wide.

This is especially important on the East End where almost all residences depend on individual cesspools or septic systems for household waste.

The task is formidable, but so was Pine Barrens protection. Twenty years ago we had to convince Long Islanders that we could do the impossible and protect the Island's premier ecosystem at a cost of more than a billion dollars. Now, we need only point to the Pine Barrens achievement as evidence that Long Islanders can and will rise to the occasion of protecting the environment, regardless of the magnitude of the task.

So, this week we celebrate not only the protection of the Pine Barrens but the promise that we will protect drinking water and surface water across the East End and all of Long Island. Let's look back for a moment on our accomplishment to date, then set out to exceed it, tomorrow. Failure is not an option.

Richard Amper is Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental education and advocacy organization.

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