Long Island’s Water Woes

Last week the New York Times ran a story on the troubling state of Long Island’s water. The residents of Long Island are heavily dependent on septic systems, with 360,000 septic systems in Suffolk County, about 75 percent of the population. Nitrogen from leaky tanks and agricultural runoff has contaminated groundwater and local waterways, creating algal blooms and that has killed off 90 percent of the once-thriving shellfish industry since 1980. The piece implies that even with a $2.5 billion new statewide water infrastructure bill signed by Governor Cuomo, the scale of the problem exceeds whatever potential funding is on its way.

Wastewater contamination is merely one threat to Long Island’s water. Unlike most places that use a combination of surface and groundwater, 92 percent of Long Islanders receive their drinking water from the sole source aquifer beneath their feet. In addition to nitrification and contamination from the island’s 254 state and federal superfund sites, the water supply is threatened by overuse, urbanization, salt water intrusion and wetlands degradation, all inextricably linked and exacerbated by climate change.

Despite the precariousness of the water supply, Long Islanders use an average of 110 gallons of water per day, more than the national average of 80-100, which has led to overdraft–when water is withdrawn from a source faster than it is replenished–in many parts of the island. Meanwhile, decades of contamination and fill have degraded and reduced Long Island’s coastal marshes. This is not only a loss of valuable habitat and weaker natural protection against coastal flooding but when combined with overdraft leads to salt water intrusion.

Long Island water crisis touches its drinking water supply, wastewater, ecosystems, local economy and public health. Such a crisis requires not just investment in hard infrastructure, but investment in open space preservation, marsh restoration, contaminant remediation, sound water management practices and institutional cooperation. RPA is studying the threats to water on Long Island and the rest of the New York metropolitan region and will be proposing strategies for addressing these threats in our fourth regional plan, A Region Transformed, to be released this fall. It’s a tall order, but there are few things more worthy than water.


Photo: Stanley Zimny / Flickr 


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