Julia Hart

Down the Drain

Julia Hart
Down the Drain

No one is super eager to potty-talk about sewage and human waste. But the dirty, filthy truth is that it’s a huge pollution problem, ruining our waters, and we need to face it now.

By Biddle Duke

It’s astonishing that when the development boom began on the South Fork in the 1980s, and thousands of acres of farmland were beginning to be carved into housing lots, and houses seemed to be popping up on virtually every vacant parcel in every village, that no one said “whoa!”

“Whoa!” not because landowners should have been prevented from obtaining the fullest financial benefit of their lands — and not because the houses being built everywhere seemed heedlessly big and inefficient, which many of them were — but because this area simply wasn’t prepared to properly handle all that additional human poop and pee. Around about the late 1980s, the signs were already quite clear that municipalities on the South Fork needed to devise a regional wastewater treatment strategy. That never happened.

 The droplet-shaped, Steven Holl–designed Whitney Water Purification Facility outside of New Haven, Conn. Photo by Paul Warchol

The droplet-shaped, Steven Holl–designed Whitney Water Purification Facility outside of New Haven, Conn. Photo by Paul Warchol

So, now — and take a second here to visualize this, because although it is a basic fact of life in “the Hamptons,” it is truly astounding— every toilet and shower and bath from the Shinnecock Canal to Montauk, from tiny cottages on Lazy Point to megamansions on Lily Pond Lane, basically flushes into carefully crafted holes in the ground. It is, as East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told End recently, “very 19th century.” (There is one exception: Sag Harbor Village, which did, in fact, build a sewage treatment plant in 1970s for its downtown district.)

The result has been predictable. South Fork ponds, bays, and harbors are plagued by serious pollution problems from bacteria, phosphorus, and particularly nitrogen, which has led to harmful algae blooms and bacterial contamination and the closure of huge swaths of shellfish grounds and some bathing beaches. Just this May, the Department of Environmental Conservation closed Alewife Pond in Northwest Woods and Fresh Pond and the Devon Yacht Club boat basin to shellfishing, because fecal coliform bacteria levels had become dangerous. And, in the case of Georgica Pond and a few other smaller bodies of water, the pollution has prompted occasional bans on all human or animal contact altogether.

No wonder, then, that wastewater treatment has of late become a primary objective of South Fork officials. The nearly 600-page East Hampton town water-quality report, completed two years ago by Lombardo Associates, a Massachusetts firm, not surprisingly recommends neighborhood and community sewage-treatment systems in areas around Montauk, in the Village of East Hampton, and around Three Mile Harbor. A second study of the town’s hamlets conducted by four engineering and planning firms hinged its recommendations on “effective centralized wastewater treatment systems.”

Take a second here to visualize this, because although it is a basic fact of life in ‘the Hamptons,’ it is truly astounding — every toilet and shower and bath from the Shinnecock Canal to Montauk basically flushes into carefully crafted holes in the ground.

The Town of East Hampton is now working on a proposed wastewater- treatment facility to serve downtown Montauk, and is discussing other smaller service areas around the Montauk docks and Ditch Plain.

Developing such systems also has been on the docket in East Hampton and Southampton villages. Southampton went so far as to undertake a study to develop a sewer district and build a treatment facility. But, despite the availability of huge state grants and the obvious environmental benefits, the big hurdle, as always, is cost. In other words, how to get existing houses and businesses, which already have on-site septic systems — inadequate as many are —to pay for and connect to a centralized system?

 Sag Harbor Village’s is the only municipal water-treatment facility eastof the Shinnecock Canal. Photo by Tara Israel

Sag Harbor Village’s is the only municipal water-treatment facility eastof the Shinnecock Canal. Photo by Tara Israel

Southampton Village put its sewer-plant proposals on ice, but momentum is clearly behind cleaning up the South Fork’s wastewater. The Montauk proposal is moving forward, driven largely by need: The vast majority of the septic systems in the downtown area there are inadequate or failing, according to recent studies, and most sites do not have room for replacements.

 The water-treatment plant at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck treats wastewater without chemicals. Photo by Farshid Assassi

The water-treatment plant at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck treats wastewater without chemicals. Photo by Farshid Assassi

Meanwhile, both towns have begun a big push to get home and business owners to install new nitrogen-removing wastewater systems. They’re now required for all new construction in East Hampton, according to a law passed last year. And the towns have offered significant financial incentives: In East Hampton, properties in “water protection districts” are eligible to have the entire cost of a new system covered; and anyone earning $500,000 or less is eligible for as much as $10,000 toward a new system, estimated to cost around $16,000.

The main impetus behind improved wastewater treatment here is water quality. But expanding sewage capacity in commercial districts also enables in-fill development, new business opportunities, and affordable housing, all of which drive community vibrancy. Is it any wonder that arguably the most vibrant village east of the canal is Sag Harbor? It installed a treatment facility in the 1970s, enabling the municipality to maintain and expand the high density so crucial to the village’s bustling vibe.

Is it any wonder that the most vibrant village east of the canal is Sag Harbor? A waste water-treatment facility was built there in the 1970s, enabling the municipality to maintain and expand the high density so crucial to the village’s bustling vibe.

In East Hampton Village, a subcommittee of trustees has been tasked with coming up with ideas to revitalize the commercial district. Village leaders rightly are seeking a more lively downtown, with more apartment housing and a greater variety of stores, with more businesses open into the evenings. A major hurdle to any of that — second and third-floor apartments above first-floor retail spaces, more restaurants, newer, smaller commercial spaces — is sewage capacity. Individual septic systems simply don’t provide enough.

“Sewage flow is an issue” to get approval for downtown apartments and other initiatives, says Billy Hajek, the village planner.

Some sort of centralized sewage treatment for the downtown “is inevitable eventually — the question is when? And where?” Barbara Borsack, a village trustee, said in an email to End recently. “We recently visited the plant in Sag Harbor to see what it looked like and learn about its operation. There are a few options for locations here. It could even be a joint town–village project, since North Main Street is closely connected to the village.”

 The Whitney facility draws water from Lake Whitney, a reserve source for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.  Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect for the Whitney project, wanted “neighbors to engage with the land from the perspective of the water that flows through it.” Photo by Steve Turner

The Whitney facility draws water from Lake Whitney, a reserve source for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.  Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect for the Whitney project, wanted “neighbors to engage with the land from the perspective of the water that flows through it.” Photo by Steve Turner

Sewer-plant-siting options have tightened considerably in 30 years, but the mood now among decision-makers appears less a question of whether it can be done and more of how. In addition to finding the money and the right location, the other main challenge facing wastewater plants has been neighbors: No one wants an industrial-looking (and potentially smelly) sewer plant nearby. But such facilities can today be designed to be actually beautiful, set in almost park-like settings — and, with current technologies, odorless.

 The Omega Institute plant is a net-zero building — which means that over the course of a year, it generates more electricity than it consumes. Photo by Farshid Assassi

The Omega Institute plant is a net-zero building — which means that over the course of a year, it generates more electricity than it consumes. Photo by Farshid Assassi

Though not a sewage plant, the Lake Whitney Water Treatment Facility, serving 12 towns on the outskirts of New Haven, is an instructive example of a large industrial facility being a good neighbor. Instead of saying, “Not in my backyard,” residents of nearby Edgerton, Conn. collaborated with the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority to replace the authority’s aging plant with a striking new one. The facility is a community park, a model of sustainable architecture, with 90 percent of the plant underground.

Another example can be found at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. It also proves that sewer plants can be elegant and hugely energy efficient. The institute’s plant is relatively small, serving a sprawling retreat center, but it is a model for what is possible on a larger scale. Such a facility could serve a small community or neighborhood. It involves no chemicals, is fully powered by geothermal and solar power, and treats wastewater not as something that should be pumped away but rather a resource to be repurposed naturally and returned safely back to nature.

On an even smaller scale, Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island has designed and built a nitrogen-reducing natural wastewater treatment system; its ugly parts are underground, and what you see is mostly a constructed wetland and garden of native grasses and plants. “This will be a beacon to others to reduce nitrogen and to keep our groundwater and surface water clean,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said at the press conference when the facility opened last year. “It will be the wave of the future, and I look forward to the day when we don’t hold a press conference to announce these things because everybody is doing it.”

We at End look forward to that day, too.


Biddle Duke, his wife, the artist Idoline Duke, and their scruffy canine, Ralphie, live in a fully solar-powered house in Springs where he raises oysters in Accabonac Harbor. The owner and operator of a Vermont media company, he's the founding editor of The East Hampton Star's magazine, EAST.