Before It’s Too Late

Before and after. These graphics show the difference a nitrogen-removing biofilter can make in a home septic treatment system.

Water quality. If you live on Long Island, it’s a going concern.

Rapidly declining water quality in the rivers, creeks, bays, and oceans of the East End has gone begging for new ideas and solutions before it’s too late, as the existing technology has been incapable of reversing the trend.

The New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, which cut its ribbon in early July, is designed to bridge these science and technology gaps through a unique approach. Its team is facilitating concerted efforts among university and research institutions, regulatory agencies, and private sector resources.

Funded by New York State with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the center’s focus is three-fold: Focus on strategic research to inform refinements to existing technology; develop novel and affordable approaches for nutrient and contaminant removal or reuse; and develop collaborations to propel existing businesses, and inspire and support entrepreneurship.

A central premise of the center is the recognition that water quality degradation is a problem that is prevalent nationwide and in communities across the globe, making the scientific and technology advancements that result from its collaborations marketable to other areas. In addition to developing solutions for the region’s pressing environmental crisis, the center is dedicated to attracting industry support to the area, further positioning New York, and Long Island in particular, as a leading hub for water technology development.

Long Island is an ideal location for cultivating the development of water protection technologies — in particular enhanced individual onsite treatment — because its needs are so great. In Suffolk County alone, an area 2373 square miles in size, there are approximately 350,000 individual onsite systems, of which 260,000 have already been identified by Suffolk County to need upgrading. In neighboring Nassau County, an area 453 square miles in size, there are up to 150,000 systems.

The Center for Clean Water Technology is developing next-generation approaches for handling household wastewater that are more efficient at removing nitrogen and other contaminants, less expensive, easier to operate, and smaller in size. The center has identified nitrogen removing biofilters as a system potentially of meeting these goals.

The executive director, Dr. Christopher Gobler is a lifelong Long Island resident. He grew up enjoying swimming on Long Island’s ocean beaches, fishing on the East End, and sailing on the Long Island Sound. His pursuit of his graduate studies in marine science was motivated by the progressive declines in Long Island’s shellfisheries during the 1980s. During the past 20 years, his research has identified the key role excessive nitrogen loading has played in the degradation of Long Island’s fisheries and water quality.

With the establishment of the CCWT, Dr. Gobler sees the promise of discovering the solutions to Long Island’s nitrogen problems as well as the creation of an industry that can create local jobs. He took time to speak with The Independent this week.

When do you first remember thinking, “I want to do something about the environment and clean water?”

I was 19 and working for an environmental advocacy group when a bayman came in and spoke to the group about the over-100-year lineage of clammers and oystermen in his family, and the reality that the lineage would end with him because the clam population in Great South Bay had collapsed due to a harmful algal bloom.

Having grown up on the waters of Long Island, this seemed unfathomable and changed me from a biologist and environmental advocate to a scientist interested in improving water quality.

What kind of outreach does the Center do or plan to do to get the next generation involved?

We make it a point to hold public events to demonstrate the efficacy of our projects and designs.

What is one of the accomplishments the Center has been able to achieve? What are its goals?

We set a goal of 10-10-30: Designing onsite septic systems that reduce nitrogen effluent to below 10 mg per liter, cost less than $10,000, and will last 30 years.

Our nitrogen removing biofilters have actually already met two of the three goals: effluent is below 10, and our research indicates the systems will last for many decades. We are now working to get the costs as low as possible. Most low nitrogen systems installed on Long Island today cost more than $25,000 and achieve 19 milligrams per liter, so we have high standards.

What do you perceive to still be the biggest obstacle?

Both reducing the costs of the systems and obtaining widespread conversion to these systems.

As far as the Center goes, what do you want to see happen on the East End?

Beyond 10-10-30, we are working closely with Suffolk County. Its new Subwatersheds Wastewater plan has identified regions of high priority for septic upgrades, many of which are on the East End.

What does the area look like in 25 years if we don’t act? What does it look like if we do everything right?

With no action, we can expect the continued decline of our groundwater, drinking water, and surface water, along with an increase in harmful algal blooms and a decrease in fishery yields and critical aquatic habitats. Getting it right should improve all of these aspects.

What are the top three things East End residents can do?

Upgrading household septic systems is A-Number One. Current grants from Suffolk County, East Hampton, and Southampton Towns will pay for the entire upgrade, making it a “no regrets” action.

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