Ansel: Suffolk Legislature is all wet over water-quality inaction

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By Dan Sears

“Time is of the essence.”

During my nearly 30 years practicing corporate law, I encountered that expression all the time. It’s a go-to phrase that lawyers include in contracts as a notice to all parties of the need for timely completion. It means we do the deal now or it’s not going to happen.

Unfortunately, the Suffolk County Legislature chose to pass on the best deal for water quality likely to come along. Their party line vote on July 25th didn’t kill the Water Quality Restoration Act (WQRA). The decision to recess rather than resolve the proposal ran out the clock, guaranteeing this essential piece of legislation will not be added to the November ballot.

I was one of 41 people who registered to testify in support of the WQRA during last week’s public hearing. For hours, the legislators heard from a diverse coalition of stakeholders, which included local residents, the business community, labor leaders, scientists, and environmental organizations, all unified in our ask: that the legislature allow voters a voice in their clean water future.

Instead, the legislature failed to act. The opportunity cost is enormous.

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First, there is the environmental and public health cost. The failure to advance the WQRA ensures that the nitrogen pollution degrading water quality in Long Island Sound and waterways across the county will continue, threatening drinking water, suffocating marine life, and causing toxic algae blooms. It’s been almost 10 years since the legislature released its Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, which opens by acknowledging, “Suffolk County’s water quality is at a tipping point.” Later specifying the source of the problem: “Nitrogen, which primarily spews from residential septics and cesspools, as well as fertilizer, are the principal culprits.” Not nearly enough has been done in the last decade to address these culprits.

Then there is the economic cost, the failure to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime levels of federal funding available to make this essential investment in wastewater infrastructure. The WQRA would have allowed voters to approve a 0.125% increase in county sales tax to fund expansion of sewer systems and replacement of the 380,000 inadequate septic systems currently in use by county residents and businesses. That sustainable source of revenue would have enabled Suffolk to apply for a federal grant from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, a five-year program which, in its first two years, would have provided a 90% match for this kind of generational infrastructure overhaul. The federal contribution falls to 80% in year three and putting this off for another year doubles the cost to taxpayers to 20% of the financial burden.

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While Suffolk County sits on the sidelines, you better believe other counties and municipalities across the country are getting online. If this inaction extends another year or two, Suffolk could miss out entirely on funding that may never again be available at this scale.

Then there’s the cost of green jobs that won’t be created, and downtowns that won’t be developed because they are unsewered.

All the while, the failing wastewater infrastructure continues to grow older and more outdated, and climate change continues to fuel heavier and more frequent rains. Not a great combination for water quality in a county that depends on it.

The legislature has long been aware of their responsibility to reduce nitrogen pollution, just as they were aware of the cost of not acting last week. They know time is of the essence, and they failed to get the deal done.


David Ansel is vice president of Water Protection for Save the Sound, a bi-state organization leading environmental action in the Long Island Sound region for more than 50 years.

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