Higher water temperatures are among the causes of deteriorating conditions in East Hampton’s ponds and marine waterways. This was among the warnings in reports presented to town officials recently reflecting this critical part of the environment. But the warming trend is not the only problem. Despite decades of restricting land-use laws, pollution is still affecting our surrounding waters. Nitrogen is thought to be a key factor. Its sources include wastewater systems, road runoff, and lawn and agricultural fertilizers. Local governments on the East End have responded by imposing new requirements on property owners. These appear to be too scattershot in practice, though it may be too soon to tell.
Local governments are derided by builders and others as always saying “no,” but it is obvious that as far as our priceless waterways are concerned, they have not said no enough.
For the first time, there is a baseline on nitrogen levels from which the several mandates can be evaluated. Before now, sampling for nitrogen was inadequate, when it took place at all. This created a situation in which policy got out ahead of science. High-tech septic systems designed to capture pollutants before they leached into groundwater, and eventually into the bays, ponds, and harbors, sounded good, but there was no way to measure whether they were actually making a difference. Now, however, research led by Christopher Gobler at Stony Brook University has measured nitrogen above the level considered safe for eelgrass, a key saltwater habitat and indicator of the condition of the marine ecosystem. Northwest Creek, Hog Creek, Three Mile Harbor, and Accabonac Harbor had nitrogen levels of .4 milligrams per liter or more, the Peconic Estuary Program’s standard. Excess nitrogen can promote harmful algae, such as the rust, or red, tides that can wipe out scallops and other sensitive marine life. Combined with elevated water temperatures, the nitrogen factor can be especially deadly.
But the threats to the waterways extend well beyond a single pollutant. In its 2020 report, the Peconic Estuary Program Partnership said that sea level rise and more frequent and severe storms will require improved watershed management. This will have to include significantly better stormwater collection to prevent everything from dog waste to motor oil from becoming an even greater threat. Meanwhile, seawalls and bulkheads restrain the landward migration of shorelines, eliminating vital habitats for many species, large and small. Groundwater not only carries nitrogen into the estuary, the study noted, but other unwelcome nutrients as well, including phosphorus, pathogens, pharmaceuticals, and toxins, such as pesticides and the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
What is disheartening about these dire reports is that almost a half-century of policy has proved inadequate. Local governments are derided by builders and others as always saying “no,” but it is obvious that as far as our priceless waterways are concerned, they have not said no enough. Reversing this trend will take much tougher environmental laws and a more nuanced approach to where improvements are made. For example, sewage treatment plants in East Hampton Village and in Montauk are conceived of as encouraging more commercial development, not less, and the water bodies they would protect are not necessarily among the top priorities for restoration. High-tech septic systems should be prioritized where they are needed, not sprinkled around randomly.
It is time to get serious — and smart — about saving our bays, ponds, and harbors.