Beginning in the early 2000s the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, under a mandate of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, published a list of impaired saltwater and freshwater bodies across the state. As of 2016, there were more than 1,000 water bodies on the list, including many in East Hampton and Southampton Towns and on the North Fork.
Impairment means the water body is high in nutrients (nitrogen compounds and phosphates, for example), algae-ridden, high in intestinal bacteria such as enterococcus and coliform bacterium, or unsafe to swim in. Mill Pond in Water Mill and Lake Agawam in Southampton Village are longstanding examples of such impaired water bodies.
All of this work precedes the local efforts of the Surfrider Foundation, Concerned Citizens of Montauk, and the Peconic Baykeeper, which use the gut bacterium enterococcus as the pollution indicator in ponds they monitor, sending samples to Christopher Gobler’s laboratory at Stony Brook Southampton. The results of their collective efforts have gone way beyond the state’s efforts, as they have included many more sampling points in both Southampton and East Hampton Towns. The Surfrider Foundation runs a nationwide sampling program, which also includes water bodies in Canada.
The D.E.C. tests for coliforms, as does the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. For 20 years now, as a result of Emerson Hasbrouck’s efforts, the Cornell Cooperative Extension has not only tested for fecal coliform, but for the source of such coliform, be it humans, Canada geese, raccoons, or any number of other birds and warm-blooded mammals.
Whichever way you look at the health of our local ponds and creeks, they continue to go downhill at a rapid rate. Thus, all levels of government are trying to stem the tide. The latest efforts involve the installation of a sophisticated denitrification septic system, culturing and sowing oysters in all local tidal waters, and abating runoff, but it remains to be seen if the tide can yet be stemmed. Even if the new septics work as designed, there are thousands of old septics belching out not only nitrates and bacteria, but medicines and cleaning solutions as well. All of the bodily and other wastes disposed of in this fashion for hundreds of years have added up to an almost insurmountable amount of polluted groundwater. The Long Island Pine Barrens preserve and all of the other open-space preservation efforts by the towns and counties, along with the state and federal governments, play a very big role in reducing pollutants, but can we keep up with population growth and bigger construction while we try to upgrade our disposal habits? That is a very big challenge indeed.
All this is happening while native bird species, including eagles, vultures, and ravens, are returning to breed, bunkers are massing in our oceans, sounds, and bays, and whales and dolphins are trying hard to make a comeback. Can the good be sustained while we struggle with the bad? That is the question. Thank God for all of the volunteers like the ones who carry out Surfrider’s mandate across the nation.
We humans still have a fighting chance to turn the tide. Let us stop the foolishness and get to it.
Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].