Ross School - Senior Projects 2012


Student: Billy Schutt

Mentor: Hugh McGuinness

Domain(s): Science

Faculty Grader: Patty Lein




Documentation of Product


Title: Nitrogen Pollution: A Danger to Long Island Waters


My project focuses on the consequences of nitrogen pollution on the marine environment. Over the summer, I conducted research on the effects of a sewage treatment plant on the surrounding water bodies as part of an on-going project at SUNY Stony Brook at Southampton. The excess nitrogen flowing from the treatment plant causes an ecological phenomenon known as eutrophication, which severely affects local waters and their fisheries. Using my research at Hewlett Bay as a case study, I wrote a report explaining the serious threat nitrogen pollution poses to Suffolk County’s marine environments in order to increase public awareness and understanding of the issue. 



Nitrogen Pollution: A Danger to Long Island Waters Final Paper


PowerPoint Presentation



Exhibition & Presentation Summary


My original senior project goal was to join a scientific research lab. This was very important to me because I am interested in pursuing microbiological research in the future and I wanted to use my senior project as an opportunity to experience research first hand.

            In June of 2011, my mentor, Mr. McGuinness, contacted Chris Gobler, the head of a marine biology lab specializing in phytoplankton at the Southampton campus of SUNY Stony Brook, on my behalf about the possibility of a summer internship. This was the lab that I joined in July. 

            My plan of action upon entering the lab was to spread myself out as much as possible, helping as many researchers as I could on their projects until I found one that I could latch onto and use for my senior project. After a couple of weeks, I started helping Ryan Wallace, a grad student at the lab, on his western bays project, which later became the project I worked on primarily.

The goal of the Western Bays project was to examine the algae generating effects of the Bay Park Sewage treatment plant on the surrounding Western Bays, an area that encompasses Hewlett Bay, Middle Bay, and East Bay. At Hewlett Bay, there is a sewage treatment outflow that pumps approximately 60 million gallons of high concentration, nitrogen rich effluent water into the bay everyday, which lead to large and frequent algae blooms.

To measure the effect that the sewage treatment plant had on Hewlett Bay, we compared the algal density at four sites, Hewlett Bay, in which the sewage outflow empties into, Middle bay, Jones Beach Inlet, and East Bay, which are progressively further away from the outflow.

The results of these observations were startling. Hewlett Bay experiences roughly four times the amount of algal growth than any other test site. This massive algal growth is a tell tale sign that eutrophication is occurring.

Eutrophication is one of the most important concepts talked about in my paper. It means that organisms, such as phytoplankton, are able to grow and reproduce more quickly in their environment. This is usually in response to heightened nutrient levels in the water, as is the case in Hewlett Bay. Soon, algal blooms grow so large that they consume all available nutrients around them, leading to a mass starvation and a die off. The algae then sink to the floor of the bay where the cells are decomposed by aerobic bacteria, a process which depletes the dissolved oxygen in the water. When this oxygen depletion becomes severe, it suffocates marine organisms.

To see the extent of oxygen depletion at Hewlett Bay, we ran vertical profiles, the process of taking various measurements such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen at meter intervals in the water column. We found that oxygen levels start to fall rapidly three meters below the surface, but after seven meters, the oxygen levels drop to basically zero, making it impossible for marine life to survive.

After summer ended, I was faced with the challenge of creating a product from my recent experiences. This was one of my biggest challenges throughout the project because I had collected a lot of data, but I had no idea how to convey it. While trying to figure this out, I thought back to a moment when I was on the boat anchored off Hewlett Bay’s small beach watching people swimming. This was right after Ryan had told me that 60 million gallons of effluent are pumped into Hewlett Bay everyday, and I thought to myself, “I wonder if these people would still be swimming here if they knew what they were swimming in?” At the same time, I wondered how prevalent eutrophication was in Suffolk County, and after learning that it was a serious problem; I got the idea to create an easy-to-read report that focused on the education of the general public about this issue of eutrophication and algal blooms.

In my report, I wanted to address and discuss the following nitrogen related issues, the eutrophication of Hewlett Bay, algal blooms in Suffolk County, the nitrogenous causes of eutrophication in Suffolk County, and finally, possible ways to help reduce nitrogen pollution.

The first section of my paper covers the ecological consequences of eutrophication by using Hewlett Bay as a case study. Using my experience over the summer, I break down the causes and effects of eutrophication and how it can severely impair a water body.

The second section of my report gives a short history of algal blooms in Suffolk County, covering various algal blooms that have proved to be detrimental to the environment, including the disastrous brown tide of 1985, which destroyed the once lucrative bay scallop industry.

The third section of the paper discusses the sources of nitrogen pollution in Suffolk County, the most significant being septic systems. This is due to the fact that many septic systems are designed to allow liquid waste, which contains high concentrations of nitrogen to seep into the soil and eventually flow downward into the groundwater, where it eventually flows into bays or is used commercially and residentially. In this segment of the report, I discuss another water body that has suffered from nitrogen pollution, Great South Bay. This estuary is a very good example of an environment particularly affected by septic systems.

In the final section of my paper, I talk about what is being done by Suffolk County to reduce nitrogen pollution and what should be done. At the moment, the county is working to reduce the amount of nitrogen that enters ground and surface waters from fertilizer use with their fertilizer reduction initiative, does things such as limiting the amount of fertilizer used on golf courses.

Unfortunately, in regard to reducing nitrogen from septic systems, which is the number one contributor of nitrogen in many areas, Suffolk County is not doing as much as other states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, who encourage the use of alternate, more efficient septic systems with tax breaks and low interest loans for homeowners looking to upgrade their systems. It is my firm belief that unless more is done to reduce the damage nitrogen pollution does to our environment, the health of our local water bodies will continue to deteriorate and our marine life will suffer.




Bibliography or Works Consulted


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