Another massive fish kill hit the East End last week. The details were remarkably — and distressingly — similar to the first die-off just three weeks ago. A nitrogen-fueled algal bloom ramps up in and around the Peconic River, oxygen levels in the water plummet to zero or near zero, bunker fish swim into the ecosystem and die en masse. And if that’s not bad enough, warming water that depletes oxygen could make the situation even worse.
Something — many things — must change. But this is not a problem with a short-term fix. Reducing nitrogen in the Peconic Estuary will be a long battle. And it’s only one phase of Long Island’s war against nitrogen. A comprehensive study of this watershed, including solutions, is needed, but it’s not enough given the present urgency.
Three weeks ago, as many as 300,000 fish died. Thousands more were killed last week. The smell was awful. People were warned not to touch rotting fish. Riverhead Town has spent thousands of dollars on nets,vacuum trucks and labor to remove as many as possible and bring them to its landfill. Slews of residents and volunteers helped clean up the shoreline after the first event. Is this the future we want?
When will we admit the terrible cost of our zealous pursuit of green lawns,and reduce the pounds of fertilizer we use to make that happen? When you live on a water body like Flanders Bay, rain washes fertilizer right into the bay. Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter says it’s almost a moral obligation for water front residents not to fertilize. He’s right. Everyone else needs to cut back, too.
Everything should be on the table. Riverhead is upgrading its sewage plant, but can its novel strategy of diverting hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated effluent daily to irrigate a local golf course be expanded to other courses and sod farms? Can the sewage district’s borders be expanded into Southampton Town to include thousands of homes in Riverside and Flanders on small lots with old septic systems? Can other parts of the East End be effectively sewered?
All of this takes money and muscle. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who understands Long Island’s nitrogen problem, can provide both. But environmental funding is one area of the state budget that has not been restored since the dark days of 2009. And the federal government should help; the Peconic Estuary is one of 28 federally designated for protection.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation also needs to step up. Other states have programs that document fish kills — number dead, type of fish, and causes — and make the data public. Patterns become obvious, and help dispel distracting arguments that these die-offs are a natural phenomenon, which slows progress.
If the agency needs more money and staff, Cuomo should make that happen. In 1995, then-Gov. George E. Pataki helped forge a historic agreement between New York City and upstate communities to clean up and protect the watershed that provides drinking water to the city. It’s time for Cuomo to exhibit that kind of leadership. We might not be able to stop the next fish kill, but we must do whatever we can to ensure this doesn’t become just another part of life on Long Island.