A view of a Long Island shoreline with the beach on the left-hand side and the ocean on the right-hand side.
Long Island Shore You can play a role in cleaning Long Island's water. © Anthony Graziano

Stories in New York

Bringing Clean Water and Healthy Coasts Back to Long Island

From septic systems to cleaning supplies, learn about all of the ways that your personal actions impact water quality in Long Island Sound.

The Nature Conservancy has been working for more than a decade to understand the causes of Long Island’s water quality problems, identify viable solutions, and secure funding to bring clean water and healthy coasts back to Long Island. 

You can help create a clean water future for Long Island. Learn how below.

The Problem

Across Long Island, there are nearly half a million conventional septic systems and cesspools that release contaminants into our water. One of the most harmful of these pollutants is nitrogen. Though nitrogen is a naturally occurring element, too much of it triggers the rapid growth of harmful algal blooms, which prevent us all from enjoying time at the beach, harm pets and wildlife, poison the shellfish we eat, and hurt local businesses and tourism.

Nitrogen pollution also puts coastal communities at risk because high levels of nitrogen damage wildlife habitats, like wetlands, which provide an important shield between people and the water. Wetlands and other natural areas help protect people, roads, and buildings from storms and rising seas that are fueled by climate change. When pollution harms natural areas, they are less able to protect our communities.

The Solution

The good news is that nitrogen pollution is a problem we can fix. A critical step to bringing clean water back to Long Island is preventing more nitrogen from entering it. We can do this by replacing polluting septic systems and cesspools with clean water technologies that remove pollutants from wastewater, which then keeps it out of our lakes, rivers, bays, and harbors as well as the water we drink. 

The Nature Conservancy continues to work with policymakers and partners to secure the funding and policy changes we need to bring clean water and healthy coasts back to Long Island. In 2021, we helped achieve a series of important milestones. 

Senators Schumer and Gillibrand helped secure $42 million from the American Rescue Plan to help Suffolk County connect more homes and businesses to sewer systems that treat nitrogen pollution. Senator Schumer is also working to almost double funding in the next infrastructure bill for clean water projects across the state. In June, the Suffolk County Legislature increased its support for Reclaim Our Water, a wildly popular program that provides much-needed assistance to homeowners committed to using clean water technology when replacing their polluting cesspools or septic systems. The additional $8 million brings total program funding up to $20 million. Also this summer, the Nassau County Legislature approved $3 million in funding for clean water septic systems, bringing the new funding total for clean water infrastructure on Long Island this year to $53 million. That’s a significant leap forward in the fight to prevent pollution and restore clean water in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. 

Of course, there is still more to do. 

How You Can Help Improve Long Island's Water Quality

  1. If you have a septic system or cesspool that doesn’t treat nitrogen, one of the most important things you can do is replace your polluting wastewater system with a new clean water system. Thanks to funding secured by Long Island leaders, these new systems can be installed for a fraction of the cost of conventional systems. 
  2. a. Together, Suffolk County and New York State provide up to $30,000 per household for clean water septic systems. Visit reclaimourwater.info to learn more and apply for funding.

    b. Nassau County also provides funding to homeowners

    c. Three Long Island towns—East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island—have additional rebates and incentive programs that will fund septic upgrades. 

  3. If you’d like to find out if you qualify for one or more of these programs, contact the North Shore Land Alliance. They can guide you through the septic replacement process from start to finish.
  4. Reduce or eliminate fertilizer and lawn and garden chemicals, many of which are high in nitrogen. Choose drought resistant plants and grasses. The Perfect Earth Project can teach you more about chemical-free lawn and garden care.
  5. Join the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, which leads the fight for a clean water future, and sign up for its action alerts at licleanwater.org. Follow the group on Facebook and Twitter.

Water Quality Stories

From Freeport to Montauk, twelve personal stories illuminate the bonds that Long Islanders have with our waters, and the urgent need to restore and protect them. Explore them in the vidoes linked below.
We're Oyster Farmers
Montauk
An oyster farm with 1 million oysters can filter 50 million gallons of water per day, making them a critical piece in protecting Long Island's water quality from nitrogen pollution
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Southwest Nassau County
Jim's Solution
A Freeport junkman Jim Ruocco has witnessed what happens when 50 million gallons per day of minimally treated sewage effluent are discharged into a poorly flushed estuary.
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Answers & Solutions
Huntington
As a fishermen and scientist, Carl LoBue ponders what our successors will think about the decisions we make today, and how those decisions will impact the island’s fishing future.
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Generations
Shelter Island
See how Long Island’s smallest township is a microcosm of the region-wide water quality problem.
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On Display
Bellport
When the new Great South Bay inlet created by superstorm Sandy opened up, it formed an 8-mile undeveloped stretch of Fire Island called the Otis Pike High Dunes Wilderness Area.
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It's Imperative
Mastic Beach
Mayor Maura Sperry talks about how water quality affects one of Long Island’s most flood-prone communities.
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Something Lost
Oakdale
George Remmer, commercial fisherman, restaurant owner, and college professor, laments the changes he has seen around Great River, Grand Canal and Great South Bay.
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Collapse of a Legacy
North Sea
Howard Pickerel has hand-built 600 boats in his backyard. Pickerel boats were at one time the backbone of Long Island’s shellfishing industry.
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A New Perspective
Springs
Evelyn O'Doherty is a year-round stand-up paddleboard racer, paddler, surfer and yoga teacher who lives in East Hampton.
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On Georgica Pond
Wainscott
Even Long Island’s most bucolic communities are not immune to the effects of nitrogen pollution. Anne Hall recalls the very personal story of a beloved family pet.
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A Chef's Connection
Greenport
Forty years ago Bruce Bollman had a vision that Long Island’s North Fork would become a destination calling for gourmet artisanal eateries.
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Headshot photo of a priest with brown hair in view on lefthand side of photo.
Holy Water
Southampton
Father Constantine Lazarakis reflects upon how we care for God’s creation and questions how we will answer for what we have done to the lakes, rivers and oceans.
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Water Quality Videos Explore the map to find local stories about Long Island's water quality.