Efforts to improve water quality in Montauk are moving ahead with the centerpiece: a $129,000 study for a sewage treatment plant to serve the downtown area with possible tie-ins to other neighborhoods. The goal of a wastewater project there would be to improve the health of Fort Pond, which is freshwater and heavily impacted from pollution from businesses and the surrounding houses.
Separately, the East Hampton Town Board is expected to authorize efforts to limit road runoff into Lake Montauk for about $170,000. And the town trustees’ recent grant of $60,000 from the state for a share of the cost of a new sewage pump-out boat to be stationed in the lake could be bolstered by about $48,000. These projects each gained the backing of a town water quality committee and are likely to be authorized in a town board vote today. We support each measure, but not without concern about a downtown wastewater treatment facility.
There is no reasonable argument that over the long term, major changes to Montauk’s main commercial and resort area will not have to be addressed. Erosion hastened by sea level rise will eventually flatten the protective dune along the lowest-lying portions of Montauk Highway; consultants hired by the town to study the effects foresaw that a bridge would someday be necessary as the ocean and Fort Pond get closer to each other. The consultants also saw a time when the cost to protect the oceanfront row of hotels and a handful of private houses would be too much and alternatives would need to be found. Their recommendation was that zoning laws be carefully rewritten to encourage a stepped retreat from the shore, over time moving the hotels and stores to higher ground. It was a good idea but dropped from the final plan after shortsighted protest from some in the business community. How a wastewater plant would fit into a long-term strategy for the area, given the reality of sea level rise, has not been spelled out.
One of the ways town officials have contemplated paying for a treatment plant is by carving out a tax district, including the oceanfront hotels, to pay into a dedicated fund. This runs the risk of locking these properties in where they are. This would be bad policy and a worse precedent. Environmental improvements that benefit the whole town should be paid for by the whole town. This way, less affluent neighborhoods will stand an equal shot at modern wastewater services. Why shouldn’t densely packed Springs, where many residents rely on private wells for household water, also be a priority? The Montauk wastewater plan, by comparison, really is of minimal importance from a human health and environmental perspective.
So why is it moving ahead, one might ask. The answer is follow the money. A previous town water quality consultant sold the town board on the idea of the Montauk tax district to help pay for the project. That way, the board could bask in the glow of ostensibly doing something worthwhile while splitting the cost with its primary beneficiaries instead of taxing the general populace.
As nice as Fort Pond is, it is of no commercial importance as a fishery and should be of far less interest than, say, Three Mile Harbor or Lake Montauk, both of which hold valuable shellfish stocks. While the Montauk sewage plant at this point seems an inevitability, it should not set the course for other projects. Environmental worth, human health, and quantifiable results must be the only yardsticks by which water quality plans are measured going forward. All water improvement projects are not equal.