In July 2012, News 12 Long Island ran a special reports entitled "Brown Tide: Blight on the Bays."
As described in the report, brown tide is actually a sudden explosion of certain types of microscopic plant cells called algae. When conditions are right—the algae multiply rapidly into a "bloom". In a single gallon of brown tide-tainted water, there are as many of these cells as there are humans on Earth.
The report's interviews included one with Dr. Chris Gobler, Stony Brook University (SBU) researcher and professor at its School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SOMAS).
Much of Gobler's research is supported by current and previous grants supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), including the Brown Tide Research Initiative (BTRI). BTRI, a $3 million, six year program administered by New York Sea Grant (NYSG), was launched by NOAA's Coastal Ocean Program (COP) in 1996 to better understand the factors that lead to bloom initiation, maintain blooms, and cause them to crash.
Transcript and Videos from Series:
For the sixth consecutive year, the brown tide is back. Murky water bursting with algae is washing up along the South Shore, most recently in parts of the Moriches and Shinnecock bays.
Brown tide is actually a sudden explosion of certain types of microscopic plant cells called algae. When conditions are right—the algae multiply rapidly into a "bloom". In a single gallon of brown tide-tainted water, there are as many of these cells as there are humans on Earth.
The first brown tide struck in 1985. Together with overharvesting, it put an end to most clamming in the Great South Bay—an area that once supplied half the clams in the United States. Scallops temporarily disappeared from East End waters. In 2008, there was another serious outbreak—and each year since then the blight has been present in various degrees and locations.
As of early July 2012 [when this report was compiled], brown tide is lurking in the eastern part of Moriches Bay, and the western part of Shinnecock Bay. And thousands of acres of waters in the Shinnecock and Huntington areas were closed to shellfishing for a few weeks this spring because of a cousin of brown tide—red tide. Red tide is onerous because it produces a toxin that could be harmful to people who eat clams, scallops or conch taken from affected waters.
Environmental experts say the algae are feeding off of excess nitrogen in the water, mostly leaching from cesspools and home septic tanks. The nitrogen from these wastewater systems has been found to be slowly moving through the Island's groundwater and into the bays, spiking algae growth.
Experts say brown tide is safe to swim in, but it does a number on shellfish populations. The algae blooms are threatening the livelihoods of local fishermen who are concerned that their usual spots will be shut down because of the problem.
Activists say a good start for dealing with the problem would be to require state-of-the-art sewage treatment systems for all new development, especially near the shore. Others are lauding shellfish nurseries that aim to jump-start the recovery of the bays.
So what's causing all of this?
O.k., there's lot of brain-numbing science involved here—but let's just say algae love to gorge themselves on nitrogen. And lots of nitrogen is getting into the water from the effects of civilization on the shore.
Experts used to think the nitrogen primarily came from fertilizers and animal waste washed into the bays by storm water runoff. But recent studies have shown most of it originates from a source closer to home: Cesspools and septic tanks.
At the SUNY Stony Brook Marine Science Center in Southampton, Dr. Chris Gobler has been doing some fancy chemical detective work. He and some Massachusetts researchers have come to the same conclusion: Nitrogen in the bays has the same isotopic signature as human waste. It goes like this: Rain falls and sinks into the aquifer. Groundwater in the aquifer flows downhill, just like surface water.
"The groundwater travels through the aquifer, it's going towards the bay, it encounters all the cesspools and septic tanks and takes the nitrogen with it, and delivers it out into the bay," Prof. Gobler told News 12.
It's a very slow process. Tainted groundwater flows only a couple of feet a day. So, ironically, the bays may just now be getting hit with the effects of explosive development in the 60's and 70's.
So what to do about it? Replacing countless cesspools and septic tanks will be horrendously expensive. A state-of-the-art system that removes nitrogen could cost two or three times more than a conventional cesspool.
McAllister believes there may have to be some kind of tax to help finance that and other improvements to keep nitrogen from poisoning the bays.
Just such a tax is now in effect in Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay is also suffering. Residents there get hit with a "flush tax" of $5 a month. It pays for upgrades to sewage treatment plants and failing septic systems, among other things.
Also of concern is fertilizer run-off from farmland in eastern Suffolk, which may be a larger problem for bay waters on the East End. Some combination of tax incentives and increased regulation may be required, says Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End—something that's liable to concern farmers. "It's a major lift—it's going to be a lot for all of us to get done," he acknowledges.
Suffolk currently bans applying fertilizer anywhere in the county between Nov. 1 and April 1 because the risk of water contamination from fertilizer run-off is highest when the ground is frozen.
Environmentalists also believe there are some near-term steps that can be taken. McAllister is calling on the county to require state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants for all new development, especially near the shore.
Nitrogen limits need to be greatly tightened because the marine environment is far less tolerant of excess nitrogen than humans, he says.
"We have a very primitive way of dealing with our wastewater......and it's caught up to us now," McAllister tells News 12. "We cannot continue the status quo."
Ed Warner of Hampton Bays, a bayman for 40 years, has seen plenty of disastrous effects from the onset of brown tide and its variants. There are high hopes for a mix of programs that are re-establishing shellfish in the bays—including oyster "farms" run by residents themselves. But every year baymen like him worry that another severe outbreak could set it all back.
Warner hopes the public catches on.
"Living on an island what we put on it eventually winds up in the water, and it does harm the bays," he told News 12. "And the bays are the economic engine of the whole East End out here. Without clean water, without fishing, without shellfishing, and being able to swim, recreational fishing, commercial fish in the bay, we would be like Arizona, it would be a desert, just virtually useless."
"I would hate to catch the last shellfish."