WE here on Long Island love our bays. And besides walking on their beaches and swimming in their waters, we depend on the bays in ways we don’t even realize.
Take the Peconic Bay. More than 1,100 businesses — with nearly a half a billion dollars in revenue — depend on the bay for survival. These businesses employ more than 7,300 people.
But water quality in the Peconic, as in the Great South Bay and a number of other important Long Island bays, is at risk. Why? One big reason is that too many developers and property owners are clearing native vegetation and replacing it with landscaping. The result is that nitrogen and other pollutants are leaking into our bays in dangerous quantities.
While all vegetation acts like a filter, removing nitrogen and other pollutants, native vegetation is especially good because unlike non-native vegetation it does not require fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to flourish. And probably the most common non-native plant is the urban lawn, which is estimated to receive an average of five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre.
By 2005, Suffolk County had identified 63 pesticide-related chemicals in groundwater. More than half of those poisonous chemicals made it into tributaries and bay waters.
Fertilizer may not be a poison, but its effects can be just as bad. Thirty-one Long Island bodies of water are on New York State’s Impaired Waters List, nearly a third of them because of excessive nitrogen or phosphorus, the main components of commercial fertilizer. When these nutrients get into the bays, they can kill off plants that fish and shellfish rely on for food, oxygen, spawning and habitat.
Dealing with these problems is expensive.
The Peconic Estuary Program, a group that protects and manages the Peconic Bay, says we need to decrease the bay’s nitrogen content by 25 percent and is calling for costly sewage treatment upgrades, the development of programs in which reclaimed and treated sewage treatment plant wastewater or sludge is used as fertilizer at golf courses and regulations prohibiting building too close to wetlands.
Many local groups are stepping up to shoulder some of the responsibility. Farmers are participating in voluntary, incentive-based programs that encourage them to protect water quality; and 30 golf courses in Suffolk County have pledged to curb fertilizer use.
But unfortunately, these actions aren’t enough. Protecting native plants is also vital.
Doing that in Long Island’s bay watersheds requires the leadership of local governments to create rules protecting plants and incentives advancing these protections.
The Town of East Hampton took such leadership when it adopted an ordinance last year to limit the clearing of vegetation on residential properties. But other local governments can and should amend their building or zoning codes to restrict clearing, particularly in sensitive areas like the land around the Peconic Bay.
Local governments should also design programs like property tax rebates to create incentives for restoring native vegetation to places where it has been cleared or otherwise lost.
Protecting native vegetation needs the skill of commercial landscapers to bring us innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to care for our yards. Professional landscapers on Long Island should seek to minimize fertilizer and pesticide use. They should also encourage clients to incorporate native vegetation into their landscape design.
And perhaps most important, local property owners should demand that their governments protect native vegetation, and that their landscapers learn ways to use it to create attractive yards.
There’s no question that our bays are important to those of us on Long Island. Making a few aesthetic changes to the way we live on the land is the least we can do to protect our water for future generations.
Sarah Newkirk is the coastal program director for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island.
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