Earth Matters: What’s the deal with nitrogen?

The Island Now

The harmful effects of nutrients, and in particular nitrogen coming from wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, fossil fuel burning and fertilizer use, on Long Island waters is a well-covered topic (see last week’s column!).

Perhaps you’ve read about how high nitrogen loads in Long Island Sound cause excessive plant growth.

Those plants, along with other living things in the water, consume oxygen.

As the plants and fish die and decompose, more oxygen is consumed and the oxygen levels in the water get dangerously low.

When this happens there are fish die-offs, algae blooms, shellfish reductions, loss of coastal marshes and degraded wetlands, and, of course, beach closures.

Nitrogen from fertilizer use and septic systems seeps into the groundwater as well. That groundwater eventually makes its way to the Long Island Sound or our bays, estuaries and lakes and causes the same problems.

Or, it is withdrawn from the groundwater for drinking water and has to be treated to reduce nitrogen levels that can be harmful to our health. High nitrogen levels can cause a condition called blue baby in infants which affects the ability of the baby’s blood to carry oxygen.

At rates 10 times those recommended by the EPA for drinking water, nitrate (the inorganic compound created when nitrogen mixes with oxygen) can convert to nitrite and under the right circumstances can be converted to a well-documented cancer-causing substance, nitrosamine.
We have come a long way in addressing the nitrogen issue and are seeing levels decline, but it remains a significant problem.

While septic systems are one of the primary contributors of nitrogen to our waters, the next largest contributor is fertilizers with high nitrogen levels. The fertilizer you use on your lawn and in your garden contains nitrogen.

Some of that fertilizer will wash off the lawn and plants during rainstorms and will make its way into our waters. The rest of it will seep into the groundwater and contaminate our drinking water and eventually find its way to lakes, bays, estuaries and the Sound.
Right now, we spend a lot of money treating our wastewater and our drinking water to reduce the amount of nitrogen.

The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation set water quality standards for all New York waters and for drinking water.

Before any wastewater can be discharged to a water body it must meet nutrient-level standards to ensure the receiving water will not exceed its state-set nutrient levels. Drinking water must also be treated before distribution to ensure its nutrient levels meet state-set standards.

This all costs taxpayers money to maintain and upgrade treatment facilities, to conduct treatment, and to monitor wells and discharge sites. There are also the costs to businesses because of beach closures, fish kills, and shellfish reduction.

And there are the non-monetary costs to those of us who live here and can’t enjoy our natural surroundings and its offerings.
The nitrogen issue has been around for decades and while things have improved, it has come at a steep cost in terms of taxpayer dollars, loss of tourism and costs to businesses. But each of us has the ability to really make a change, one person at a time, by spending our money differently and adjusting our behaviors slightly.

More on what you can do at your own home to address this persistent and harmful problem of nitrogen in our water in next week’s column.

Lynn Capuano is president of Terrapin Environmental Solutions

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