Water quality at an all-time low

A new water quality report shows excessive amounts of nitrogen have fueled hypoxia and toxic algae blooms across Long Island this summer. Scientists at Stony Brook University, who conducted the study, announced their findings at a press conference held at the Fire Island National Seashore Visitor’s Center last week. Testing showed that every major bay and estuary suffered toxic algal blooms, oxygen-starved waters or both from May through August of this year. Experts say that nitrogen from sewage and fertilizers are to blame.

Dr. Christopher Gobler, Coastal Ecology and Conservation professor and researcher at Stony Brook University, noted that this year’s brown tide was the most widespread brown tide event in Long Island’s history, both in terms of distance, spanning the entire south shore, and duration.

Rust tide was found on the East End throughout the Peconics and Shinnecock Bay, for the first time in Quantuck Bay and only the second time in Great South Bay. Rust tide, a type of algae, can kill finfish and shellfish. Gobler’s findings also showed red tide, ulva, blue-green algae, hypoxia and fish-kill observations in eastern Shinnecock Bay and Old Fort Pond. “In between, the longest and most intense brown tide bloom in recorded history, toxic blue-green algae in 14 lakes across the Island, seaweeds on ocean beaches, oxygen-depleted waters found at more than 20 locations from Hempstead to East Hampton.  The confluence of all of these events in all these places across Long Island in a single season is a clear sign of things being amiss,” he said in a statement.

The brown tides bloomed in mid-May and continued through August, covering waters from Freeport to Southampton. Data shows brown tide cell densities exceeded 2.3 million cells per milliliter in the Great South Bay — the highest levels ever recorded on Long Island. Scientists say that just 50,000 cells per milliliter of brown tide can harm shellfish. Dead zones, or areas where oxygen is low, were also observed. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation mandates that marine waters must sustain three milligrams or more of dissolved oxygen to allow fish to survive. “The data reveals that many sites are not suitable for sustaining fish and shellfish,” Gobler added. The summer of 2017 report was compiled by Dr. Gobler, whose lab groups monitored and sampled Long Island’s waters on a weekly basis all summer. Data was also collected from the Long Island Sound Study, which is funded by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Our water quality is degrading before our eyes,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Our bays are dying and the science clearly shows us why.  Doing nothing is not an option. The problem will not fix itself. We need to rapidly move forward with advanced innovative septics, expansion of sewers and creation of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan.”

Nitrogen enters waterways through household sewage and fertilizers, which are washed into groundwater, thus stimulating toxic algal blooms. Though dozens of organizations are at work to revive these habitats of shellfish in the Great South Bay, algal blooms have proved to be a challenge, especially this summer.

Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said that water quality is vital to both area tourism and Long Islanders’ way of life. “It is our hope that the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan will play a critical role in reversing the trend of worsening algal blooms that has been observed in recent years,” he said in a statement.
Water quality continues to be a top issue at state, county and local levels. Suffolk County plans to approve 12 different wastewater treatment technologies by the end of this year, and earlier this year announced a new grant program that allows homeowners $10,000 to replace aging septic systems. In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget, $2.5 billion was allocated to address water quality statewide and a new $10 million initiative to restore shellfish on Long Island.

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