Bang For The Buck

Both Southampton and East Hampton towns will lead the way as Suffolk County soon enters a period in which, potentially, the steady decline of water quality in bays, lakes and ponds can finally be halted, and even reversed. Nitrogen is the key, and new funding sources have been diverted to make sure a steady stream of fresh money washes in and begins to remove pollution from failing septic systems and other sources.

Scale will be important, and a good place to start for both towns could be schools. Throughout the South Fork, school buildings have enormous septic tanks, many of them old and some failing. Even the best of them are simple repositories that allow nitrogen-laden wastewater (a whole school day’s worth, sometimes from hundreds of children) to seep into the ground—sometimes, as with schools in Springs, East Quogue and Sag Harbor, where the water bodies they impact are close by, sometimes in sight.

As Kevin McAllister, president of Defend H20, a Sag Harbor-based water quality advocacy nonprofit noted, these are “entire communities in one building”—the equivalent of hundreds of homes. But that also means that addressing them will have a comparable impact, something harder to do when you’re dealing with individual properties.

Both the county and the towns will be pushing money toward efforts to limit nitrogen pollution. As they set priorities, it’s clear that residential usage is key. But setting aside large allocations each year, for the first few years, to work with school districts to upgrade these buildings and the aging tankers of waste buried beneath them is sensible.

As it stands, there is little attention paid to the problem, nor a single state entity to address it. Fortunately, the towns can fill the vacuum with some leadership, and a ready allocation of cash from funds that will be steadily pumping help into the problem for years to come. As Mr. McAllister said, it’s about “bang for the buck”—and putting school systems up front makes a lot of sense, both fiscally and environmentally.