Region unites against LI’s nitrogen nightmare

That stinks: Nitrogen pollution is often the culprit behind large-scale fish kills, like this 2016 clog in the Shinnecock Canal.

Each summer, annual reminders of our region’s water-quality crisis – including fish kills, toxic algal blooms and others – reappear. While there are a number of causes for the poor quality of many of our coastal and inland waterways, “nitrogen loading” has been a main culprit.

Nitrogen from fertilizer and human waste enters our waterways and causes the excessive growth of algae. which uses up dissolved oxygen and blocks sunlight. These are essential to maintaining the health of cherished water bodies such as the Long Island Sound, the Great South Bay, the Peconic Estuary and other local embayments.

While nitrogen pollution can significantly impact our quality of life, the good news is that the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan is fighting back with a range of management, technical, regulatory and policy actions. Numerous multi-year initiatives are currently underway, some starting this summer, to decrease the amount of nitrogen entering our surface and groundwaters.

This LINAP partnership, headed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Long Island Regional Planning Council, also includes Suffolk and Nassau counties, local governments, area scientists, engineers, environmentalists and non-governmental organizations, and a cadre of supporting professionals.

John Cameron Jr.: Comprehensive collaboration.

A few examples include expanded water-quality monitoring in Nassau’s western bays, new recommendations on proper fertilizer use, a wastewater re-use initiative, expansion of Suffolk’s sewer infrastructure and relocation of sewer plant outflows to limit treated effluent from entering inland waterways.

Others include a nutrient bio-extraction program to identify ways to remove nitrogen through the cultivation and harvesting of seaweed and shellfish, action plans to limit algal blooms, initiatives to study and manage sub-watersheds, “roadmaps” to help guide nitrogen-mitigation projects through the application process, and biological nutrient removal during wastewater treatment.

Another vitally important goal of LINAP is protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, a critical line of defense against potential storms and natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, which in a degraded condition leave coastal communities more vulnerable to wave action and storm surge. Wetlands are also essential components of our marine habitat that help to reduce the amount of our environment’s nitrogen and carbon contaminants.

LINAP has been described as one of the most significant environmental initiatives in this region since the preservation of the Long Island Pine Barrens. Like that successful initiative, LINAP has also become an important model of how a complex issue of regional importance can be addressed through a comprehensive collaboration of the municipal and private sectors, working together to improve the Island’s water quality for the benefit of generations to come.

John Cameron Jr., PE, is chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council and founder/Managing Partner of Woodbury-based Cameron Engineering & Associates.