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The Million-Dollar Eel

Thu, 01/06/2022 - 12:29


“What’s going on with Town Pond?” is a question we have heard frequently in the months since the completion of a $1 million public works project to remove several feet of mud and organic matter from the pond’s bottom. This winter, it certainly hasn’t escaped residents’ notice that the water’s surface has fallen and fallen again, that the holiday tree has been floating in mid-air, and the water is now more than an arm’s length below the pond’s wooden bulkhead.

The short answer is that East Hampton Village officials are replacing a broken-down pump that had been used in the past to keep up the water level. With the recent dredging having increased the pond’s volume by more than double, that new pump will have to run a lot more frequently than the old one did.

The longer answer is, well . . . long. The big dig was first planned while Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. was mayor; it was to be paid for by a bond that the village would repay over time. That approach was shelved. And then, when new leadership came in with Major Jerry Larsen’s Newtown Party, the village came up with a different funding plan: It turned to the Town of East Hampton for community preservation fund money, instead.

Once the work began, close to a year ago, it was not without hiccups. Red-eared slider turtles were noticed hiding in the muck, and animal rescuers sprang into action to save them from the big earth-mover and move them to a safer home. According to a letter to village residents Mr. Larsen sent in the summer, “with the help of local wildlife experts, we were able to save 14 turtles, a few koi, and an eel.”

The wildlife-saving incident casts the whole pond-dredging effort in rather an amusing light — we can imagine Beatrix Potter getting a book out of it — but there is a more serious story here, about the ways in which money from the preservation fund is spent.

Voters approved a ballot referendum in 2016 that gave East Hampton Town officials the ability to divert up to one in five dollars in C.P.F. income each year to loosely defined “water-quality improvement” projects. That legislation did not clearly lay out environmental standards for what constituted water-quality improvement, nor did it provide guidance for determining priorities or sorting worthy projects from unnecessary ones. One constraint placed on spending was that projects that “permit or accommodate new growth” were not eligible. (And that is why you see politicians seeking alternative funding sources for new sewage treatment plants in downtown Montauk and East Hampton Village: The creation of sewage-treatment plants accommodates commercial and residential growth.)

Time and again, politicians as a global species have demonstrated the folly of granting them access to money with only vague limitations and thin oversight, and, in our view, the Town Pond dredging project is a good example of how things can go a bit pear-shaped.

Part of the justification for the Town Pond work, as first conceived, was beautification: Green algae in summer had been, since time immemorial, a persistent aesthetic annoyance. But, overall, the pond was — and looked — healthy enough to support aquatic vegetation, a pair of resident swans, the occasional muskrat, and a rotating cast of ducks, turtles, herons, and gulls.

The idea that dredging Town Pond would either improve its aesthetics or positively impact Hook Pond seems to have been based mainly on speculation. Only cursory study was conducted before funding was acquired and work began. So far, there is no evidence that water quality has been improved by the expense, and certainly the pond has not been looking its best.

Acting on the advice of its water-quality advisory committee, the East Hampton Town Board gave the village nearly $200,000 for the dredging of Town Pond in 2020, followed by a grant of another $672,000 in April. In December, the village board said it would ask the town for about $164,000 more, this time for the new top-off pump. Cha-ching! That’s more than a million dollars for an effort of dubious worth.

Water quality is, of course, of crucial importance to our ecosystem, and we fully support the use of C.P.F. money to improve it. However, in the absence of clearer guidelines, town officials must proceed with greater caution when determining to whom and for what they will dole out the cash.

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