Losing something we rely on, but perhaps take for granted, quickly brings us to appreciate its value. In Suffolk County, many residents now realize that our clean water — both the water we drink and the water surrounding us in bays and ponds — is in jeopardy.
The lack of crabs in our ponds, the dearth of eelgrass and shellfish in our bays, and the increasing concerns about the purity of the source of our drinking water all stem from the same problem: nitrogen pollution from sewage, fertilizer, and other sources.
Long Island's way of managing water - with water supply and delivery being the responsibility of one set of entities, and treatment after use being the responsibility of other entities—goes back nearly 100 years, when there were far fewer people on Long Island using less water.
The disconnect between water delivery and water treatment does not reflect the natural state of affairs – water's path is cyclical. In fact, the water we flush down our toilets is the same water that comes back through our taps and into our ponds. Human beings' use and pollution of water represents a massive point of impact within water's natural cycle.
In contrast to the natural cycle of water, the way it is distributed and treated is disjointed. The water company's only objective is to sell water, a condition that it comes out the other end is not their concern. Currently, they are still able to directly tap the Long Island aquifers without the cost of importing water from long distances. As a result, water in Suffolk County remains cheap (and we use more of it!) even as our water systems are becoming increasingly polluted due to excess nitrogen loading from inadequate wastewater management systems.
In Suffolk County, an average household pays about $200 per year for the tap water they use in their homes. That's less than half what Nassau County residents pay, and one-third what New York City residents pay. What happens when something is so cheap, or nearly free? It's taken for granted and exploited, rather than properly stewarded. On the East End, where nearly 40,000 residences use private wells, this issue is even more complicated.
In addition to the low cost of tap water is the nearly non-existent cost of wastewater management in Suffolk County. Almost 75 percent of Suffolk County residents don't pay sewer fees, while NYC and Nassau residents do.
There is a current effort to respond to this crisis caused by nutrient overloading into our water. New York State, Suffolk County and various East End towns are responding and promoting the use of nitrogen-reducing septic systems, with rebate programs and phase-outs of old cesspools that leach directly into our waters. But we also know that solving the problem goes beyond new technology: how will we pay for and use water to better reflect its value to people and nature?
We would have a very different system — and better outcomes — if the water that each of us uses had to be returned to its original source in the environment clean enough so that it could be used again without worry. Currently, there is no single regulatory body that is responsible for managing this across the board. If this sounds far-fetched, it's not. There are many jurisdictions across the United States that function this way.
Recently, a team of analysts from IBM's Smart Cities challenge studied Suffolk County's water pollution issues and water management system, and recommended a new business model in which the full cost of returning clean water to the environment after use by consumers would be reflected in its price. They suggested that the revenue created by the price increase be put into a "locked box dedicated fund" to help implement strategies to reduce pollution and ensure safe waters.
In this manner, users of water would be paying to return clean water to our natural aquifer and groundwater systems, rather than robbing future generations of their heritage through ever-increasing water use and pollution.
No one on Long Island wants to wake up with the drinking water problems like New York's Hoosick Falls or Flint, Michigan. It's time for the way we value water to be fully reflective of water's importance to society, indeed, to life itself, and like in other parts of the country that have done just this, residents will adjust how they use and value water. So let's support restoring our waters and quality of life.
Kevin McDonald is the conservation policy and finance advisor for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island.