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A Plea for More Science

Wed, 04/06/2022 - 12:37


A researcher seeking the East Hampton Town Trustees’ blessing for a pollutants study in Accabonac Harbor said out loud something that had been lurking under the surface of water-quality efforts, that there was little scientific basis for many of town, county, and state initiatives. Some years ago, reporting in this newspaper on the lack of baseline data to support nitrogen reduction efforts was publicly dismissed by officials eager to push a shift to expensive new-tech septic systems. Confronted with the fact that federal water tests in the Peconic Estuary showed acceptable nitrogen levels, a leading private consultant for the town claimed, without proof, that the information was faulty. Now some of them may be coming around to a grudging realization that environmental policy that is developed without understanding the complexities of the causes first is almost the same as having no policy at all. 

Regarding Accabonac Harbor in Springs, Molly Graffam, a water resource geochemical specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, told the trustees at a recent meeting how samples would be taken from a dozen locations there to test for, among other things, nitrogen levels and fecal coliform bacteria. In addition, the extension would install five semipermanent monitoring stations around the harbor. The goal, as she described it, was to identify portions of the shoreline in immediate need of help. Knowing this, the information collected would help guide remediation efforts — a significant improvement over the scattershot approach most prevalent now. Homeowners were mandated to spend tens of thousands on nitrogen-reducing septic equipment, despite there still being no way to gauge if the results were worth the cost. The systems might yield environmental improvements, but then again, they might not — years into the program, no one still knows for sure.

Accabonac Harbor would not be the only water body in the Town of East Hampton getting a closer look. Sampling at Georgica Pond has been ongoing, and the trustees are expected to hear a report on water quality there at their Monday evening meeting. The Concerned Citizens of Montauk and Surfrider Foundation have done years of bacteria tests. And yet there still is a shortage of quality information about most of the rest of East Hampton bays and harbors. Big money is at stake here. Town officials can draw up to 20 percent of annual community preservation fund income on water quality projects, which means understanding the science is key. Setting priorities about where help is really needed could avoid embarrassments, like a $1 million mud-removal debacle at Town Pond in East Hampton Village that still is not complete and which has had minimal benefits for the ecosystem.

Cooperation between members of the scientific community and local officials is essential in sorting good proposals from bad. With several huge projects to build developer-friendly sewage treatment plants coming along soon — in East Hampton Village and Montauk — determining what is hype and what would really help. It is easy for politicians to say that something is good for the water; it is much more difficult for them to actually back that up. The public needs to demand science first and foremost.

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