Long Island Water Quality

Where Does It Go When I Flush?

Water Questions Where Does it Go When I Flush?

Not Designed to Remove Nitrogen

Even when working properly, traditional Long Island cesspools and septic systems are not designed to keep reactive nitrogen from entering groundwater aquifers. As waste water flows through the ground, the nitrogen from urine and other wastewater content is typically converted to nitrate, which is reactive. Nitrate travels through the ground water until it eventually flows to surface waters or drinking water wells.

When the Water Table is High

Long Island’s conventional septic systems only function as designed when there is enough distance between the leaching pit and the ground water. In low-lying coastal areas septic systems are commonly considered “failing” when the ground water comes close to the leaching pit. Many septic systems can fail at once when rain or storm surges submerge septic systems and/or elevate the water table. In addition to nitrogen pollution, failing septic systems release pathogens that are a direct threat to human health.

A Wide Range of Innovative Alternatives

Forty years ago the options for handling waste water were limited to “large pipe” gravity sewers and conventional cement septic systems. Fortunately, wastewater technology has advanced considerably. Some new systems can combine onsite and offsite treatment and can utilize small diameter flexible plumbing. These can feed to existing regional treatment plants or to new treatment “clusters” that can range in capacity from a few homes in a cul-de-sac to entire communities.

Individual on-site systems also have come a long way. A growing number of manufacturers already produce and sell “out of the box” nitrogen reducing septic systems that are commonly used in other parts of the U.S. There are even low tech solutions that use shallow drain fields containing simple materials such as saw dust and wood chips to harness the power of naturally occurring bacteria, which can remove up to 90% of the reactive nitrogen, as well as other contaminants of concern.

Explore Local Stories About Water Quality

We're Oyster Farmers
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
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.
Answers & Solutions
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.
Shelter Island
See how Long Island’s smallest township is a microcosm of the region-wide water quality problem.
On Display
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.
It's Imperative
Mastic Beach
Mayor Maura Sperry talks about how water quality affects one of Long Island’s most flood-prone communities.
Something Lost
George Remmer, commercial fisherman, restaurant owner, and college professor, laments the changes he has seen around Great River, Grand Canal and Great South Bay.
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.
A New Perspective
Evelyn O'Doherty is a year-round stand-up paddleboard racer, paddler, surfer and yoga teacher who lives in East Hampton.
On Georgica Pond
Even Long Island’s most bucolic communities are not immune to the effects of nitrogen pollution.
A Chef's Connection
Forty years ago Bruce Bollman had a vision that Long Island’s North Fork would become a destination calling for gourmet artisanal eateries.