Long Island faces a looming crisis, and as of now does not have the means to avert it.The crisis-in-the-making is the contamination of our water, recently revealed in a draft report from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. The study showed:

  • Rises in harmful nitrates in our aquifers.
  • Pesticides in almost one-fourth of community supply wells.
  • Degradation of our coastal environment.

These trends threaten the survival of our region. Our aquifers supply 100% of our drinking water. We need to prevent further contamination. The cost of doing so will be substantial; the cost of waiting until the damage is done, astronomical.

The problem is huge, because contamination comes from so many sources: household sewage; fertilizer and pesticide use; road run-off; industrial wastewater; and more.

Our response must be equally comprehensive. We need stronger regulations. Upgrades to sewage and stormwater infrastructure. And above all, better land use and land management.

For this to happen, we need, first, a paradigm shift in how we think about water protection. Clean water is not one of a number of competing interests: it’s the single resource we can’t live without.

Next, we need an Island-wide plan that views the problem in its entirety and doesn’t shrink from tough action.

But who is to carry out the plan? Currently, water protection is scattered among various state, county, town, and local entities. No one has overall responsibility—and authority—to get the job done.

To fill the void, we need a coalition of the willing-and-able—from government, business, environmental and community organizations—a group with the heft and determination to focus attention on the problem . . . hammer out comprehensive plans . . . and use its influence to demand that its recommendations become law.

A “water summit” represents a kind of cooperative action we’ve rarely seen on Long Island. It will take vision and leadership—the ability to subordinate individual interests to the overriding public interest. That’s a tall order.

On the plus side, the crisis we face gives us all the incentive we should need. Civilizations don’t survive without water.