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Long Island's Water Quality: At a Tipping Point

All 2.8 million Long Islanders rely on a sole aquifer system for water for everything from mixing baby formula to watering lawns. Increasingly, though, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, roadway runoff, and aging septic systems and sewage treatment plants are polluting the Island’s source of drinking water, streams, ponds, rivers, and bays.

New studies have found an alarming increase in contaminants in ground and surface water. In Suffolk County alone, nitrogen contamination has increased 200% in the past decade, prompting the State Department of Environmental Conservation in 2010 to classify 100 bodies of water as too “impaired” for swimming or fishing. 


To address this urgent contamination problem, the Long Island Community Foundation made $507,000 in water-quality grants from 2009 to the present through our Henry Philip Kraft Family Memorial Fund, set up to protect and conserve the environment by reducing or eliminating toxins.

The following is a sample of what these grants have accomplished.

The Path to Clean Water

Since 1977, the Long Island Pine Barrens Society in Riverhead has been working to protect the Island's environment. With a 2011 grant of $35,000, the Society teamed up with Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Groups for the East End, and the Nature Conservancy to create a Long Island Water Quality Protection Plan.

The plan is essential because Nassau and Suffolk counties have more than 50 water districts, “creating artificial boundaries for a natural resource that has no boundaries,” says Sol Marie Alfonso Jones, program officer at the Long Island Community Foundation. The fragmentation leads to scatter shot enforcement of clean water laws and prevents State and Federal water standards from being met.

Long Island Clean Water Partnership now works closely with elected officials, community associations, maritime businesses, and concerned citizens to protect water quality. Organizers held a Water Worries Conference in 2012, bringing together experts, advocates, and policy makers to create strategies for solving the region’s water woes. More than a dozen hearings and public information sessions have been organized across the Island.

“The Long Island Community Foundation grant activated our clean water campaign and empowered us to involve the whole Long Island community,” says Richard Amper, Pine Barrens executive director.

Protecting Open Waters

With $50,000 in grants from the Kraft Fund for the environment at the Long Island Community Foundation, Peconic Baykeeper, a nonprofit advocate for the Peconic and South Shore estuaries, helped establish a “no discharge zone,” where boats can no longer dump their sewage in open waters. During a typical summer weekend, more than 24,000 boats crisscross the South Shore Estuary, which includes barrier islands, bays, beaches, sea life and underwater vegetation from the Nassau-Queens border to Southampton.

Before the law took effect, many of the boats would empty their sewage holding tanks while under way or dump their treated sewage waste overboard. Now they must discharge their waste at pump out facilities. The “no-discharge” designation has prevented millions of gallons of waste from entering the water, but Baykeeper’s work is far from done. Sewage treatment plants, storm water runoff, and fertilizers continue to add harmful nitrogen to our ocean waters.

Identifying the Worst Polluters

In 2011, with help from Community Foundation grants totaling $50,000, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Farmingdale analyzed 10 sewage treatment plants across Nassau and Suffolk and revealed alarming hazards. In the first-ever Long Island Sewage Report Card, nearly half the plants barely made the grade, while three received Ds.

The faulty sewage plants release billions of gallons of under-treated or raw sewage into bays, beaches and surface water each year, according to the Campaign’s website, jeopardizing human health, closing beaches, killing fish and wildlife, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in costs.

“Long Island’s sewage woes are frightening,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign.

The report card revealed three of the sewage plants were discharging more than 60 million gallons of  treated sewage a day into bays in southern Nassau; half had more than 70 violations in five years; and none had a system to notify residents when sewage was released. In response to the report, Nassau created an email system to let residents know about dangerous discharges.

Our Kraft Fund grants haven’t just helped improve the Island’s water quality; they’ve also raised public awareness of the problems.

“We’re committed to addressing this life-threatening issue of water quality on Long Island,” said David Okorn, Long Island Community Foundation executive director. “The Kraft Fund makes this commitment possible."

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