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DEC Releases Report on The Harmful Impacts of Nitrogen Pollution on Long Island's Coastal Marshlands

Efforts to Reduce Nitrogen Loading Are Critical to Strengthen Coastal Resiliency.

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Long Island, NY - May 8th, 2014 - As part of ongoing efforts to bolster New York's coastal resiliency against future storms and sea level rise, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) today released a scientific white paper describing how excessive nitrogen pollution damages coastal marshlands that are a critical line of defense against severe storms and flooding.

"Under the direction of Governor Cuomo, DEC and other state agencies are working to strengthen the resiliency of communities that are susceptible to severe storms and flooding," DEC Commissioner Martens said. "The report illustrates the noxious effect excess nitrogen pollution has on marshland systems that help to protect Long Island against storms like Sandy. Based on this information, it is imperative that efforts to improve coastal storm resiliency include actions to significantly reduce nitrogen pollution. This report will help DEC work with local officials, environmental groups, economic organizations and others to build a plan that will address longstanding wastewater issues in Nassau and Suffolk counties."

The white paper synthesizes peer-reviewed literature and other scientific data on nitrogen pollution. The report specifically details how coastal marshes and their vegetation provide a natural infrastructure that calms storm surges and damaging waves along Long Island's south shore bays. Nitrogen pollution is a threat to these marshes, causing the grasses to grow taller, but produce fewer and less dense roots, which destabilizes the marsh grasses. Tall grasses with fewer or weaker roots are subject to the tugging and pulling of waves, leading to accelerated erosion and the loss of stabilizing vegetation.

Recent studies that have increased the understanding of nutrient enrichment note that salt marshes do not have unlimited capacity to remove nitrogen, as was once thought. The report cites specific examples of significant marsh loss over the past several decades, including marshes in the Great South Bay. From 1974-2001, there was an 18-36 percent loss in tidal wetlands in the Great South Bay as a result of factors including excess nitrogen entering the watershed. A study found that 68 percent of the total nitrogen entering the bay originated from wastewater, including wastewater from septic systems and sewage effluent discharges. DEC's white paper, titled "Nitrogen Pollution and Adverse Impacts on Resilient Tidal Marshlands," is available on the DEC website.

Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone said, "Nitrogen poisoning and its effects on our waterways and coastal vegetation here in Suffolk County and Long Island is the most critical issue our community has faced in a generation. I thank Governor Cuomo for his leadership and efforts on this issue and welcome the DEC's white paper and the fundamental connection it draws between reducing nitrogen pollution and needed efforts to protect and enhance the coastal marshes that, in turn, protect our Island and all of us who live here."

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano stated "I support the Department of Environmental Conservation in their initiative to reduce nitrogen levels. My administration launched a pilot project at the Bay Park Wastewater Treatment Plant that has reduced the nitrogen level. Reconstruction of the plant will make further reductions, and achieving an ocean outfall pipe will significantly protect our bays and coastal areas."

DEC released the white paper in advance of four meetings on Long Island in the coming weeks as part of an intensive and collaborative review of clean water needs in Nassau and Suffolk counties to increase resiliency against future storms, improve water quality and provide additional protections for Long Island's groundwater resources. The first meeting will be held on May 12 in Nassau County and will focus on identifying problems related to wastewater infrastructure and exploring solutions for reducing high levels of nitrogen in the back-bay area north of Long Beach Island.

The second meeting will be held on May 19 at SUNY Stony Brook to hear from a panel of leading experts on wastewater and septic solutions. The third meeting will be held on May 28, during which time state officials will tour Suffolk County facilities and meet with local officials and environmental groups to identify problems related to inadequate wastewater treatment and to explore solutions to the high levels of nitrogen in the Great South Bay and other south shore bays. The public will be invited to submit comments during this meeting.

Based on what is learned and discussed at the first three meetings, the final meeting in June will feature recommendations to Governor Cuomo on how to address wastewater and septic problems to make Long Island more resilient.

Long Island's sole source aquifer serves as the water supply for 2.5 million New Yorkers. DEC and Suffolk County, in conjunction with the Town of Southampton and SUNY Stony Brook, are actively developing and implementing a $6 million plan for nitrogen treatment pilot projects at individual homes or small subdivisions that are not readily reachable by sewer lines. This plan will include a research program on methods to improve the effectiveness of nitrogen treatment systems, reduce their cost and footprint, and simplify operations and maintenance. Approximately 70 percent of homes and businesses in Suffolk County are not served by sewers. The State and County are also exploring financing options for septic system replacements and retrofits.