Stony Brook scientist: Nitrogen loading an ongoing threat to Long Island waters

Stony Brook University scientist Christopher Gobler emphasized again at his annual State of the Bays lecture last Wednesday that excessive nitrogen loading from wastewater is an ongoing threat for Long Island waters. 

“Warming, acidification, hypoxia and harmful algal blooms are the four horsemen of the ocean climate change apocalypse, because they’re all happening together,” he said.

The Suffolk County subwatershed plan, published in 2020, showed nitrogen levels rising in surface and ground waters. Between June and September 2021, documented marine and freshwater harmful algal blooms and dead zones were widespread on Long Island shorelines. 

The rising population on Long Island has correlated with a significant increase in the nitrate levels in the aquifer, according to Mr. Gobler. Epidemiological literature on even low levels of nitrates have been associated with elevated levels of cancer, he said, adding that Suffolk County has higher rates of bladder cancers than anywhere else in the state or country, and higher rates of kidney cancer than average. 

Widespread toxic algal blooms have also impacted water quality and marine ecosystems, including the bay scallop population, he noted. Suffolk County has the most toxic blue-green algal blooms in the state, according to Mr. Gobler, and last year was “pretty bad” for rust tides, with the bloom starting in early August and continuing through October. Last spring, there was also a mahogany tide in many places across the south shore. 

In an October report, Mr. Gobler said conditions causing low oxygen and harmful algae blooms in Long Island waters, including on the East End, have become a “new normal,” with every major bay and estuary that summer suffering from toxic blooms and dead zones in a “dual assault of climate change and excessive nitrogen loading.”

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