Montauk’s greatest natural asset is the saltwater that surrounds it. But Montauk runs on fresh water. There could be no houses, motels, restaurants, yacht clubs, schools, libraries, churches, or fire hydrants without clean, fresh water. To thrive, Montauk’s ponds, lakes, and harbors must also have uncontaminated fresh water mixing into them.
Montauk’s only indigenous fresh-water supply is a lens of recharged rainwater held in underground sand and gravel deposits, or aquifers. If you dig a well too deep in Montauk, it will hit the saltwater beneath the fresh-water layer. If you place a well too close to the bay, or pump fresh water too aggressively, saltwater will intrude. Whatever you put on or into the ground, like human sewage, ends up in the groundwater and the surface waters.
It is a fragile natural balance. If growth in Montauk in the 20th century had been limited by the capacity of Montauk’s aquifer to provide clean, fresh water for people and the fresh ponds and estuaries, the peninsula would be much less developed than it is.
Instead, growth exceeded what the natural resources could support, and ground and surface water quality is now degraded. In the 1980s, to support the overdevelopment already in Montauk and allow more growth, the Suffolk County Water Authority installed a pipe taking fresh drinking and firefighting water from Amagansett and East Hampton under the Napeague stretch into Montauk. Montauk’s limited indigenous fresh-water supply combined with the imported water from the west would be enough to provide potable and firefighting water to existing and future development. Or would it?
According to The Suffolk Times, “Following an urgent campaign for water conservation in 2021, during a summer plagued by extreme heat and drought conditions,” the water authority is pushing new water conservation measures. “In the summer of 2022, SCWA declared a Stage 1 water emergency, in which residential and business customers in Southampton Village and the towns of East Hampton, Southold and Shelter Island were asked to stop irrigating their lawns between midnight and 7 a.m.”
And “effective Feb. 1, 2023, SCWA has issued a new directive prohibiting lawn irrigation and other water use activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. — the hottest part of the day, when water is least likely to penetrate the soil and instead evaporate in the heat — plus an odd/even day irrigation schedule for all SCWA customers.”
The largest, virtually untapped indigenous fresh-water resource in Montauk lies under some 3,000 acres of forests in the Hither Hills and Hither Woods parks. That stored fresh water will likely become very precious in the future.
Montauk and many other areas in Suffolk County have also exceeded the capacity of the natural environment to absorb human sewage without treatment. In Montauk, while the combination of water authority water mains, other private water systems, and private wells seems to be keeping up with the demand for potable water for now, human sewage, released through on-site septic systems, is polluting Montauk’s groundwater, especially in downtown, around Fort Pond, in Ditch Plain, and the Dock area. And the polluted groundwater is seeping into the ponds, lakes, and harbors, causing toxic algal blooms and closure of shellfishing and swimming areas.
The town board’s wastewater consultants have estimated that on average 500,000 gallons of untreated human sewage, in household and business wastewater, is discharged into the groundwater in these problem areas in Montauk every day. This results in the need for more water main extensions to houses and businesses that still rely on private wells, and increases the demand on the East Hampton and Amagansett aquifers that feed the public water system and on Montauk’s increasingly compromised indigenous water supply.
So how did we get to this precarious place and what can we do about it? The problem, in a word, is overdevelopment. There have been a series of human mistakes made over the last 100 years that brought us here.
The most consequential overdeveloper in Montauk was Carl Fisher and his Montauk Beach Development Corporation. In the early 1920s, after becoming wealthy in the automobile industry, Fisher and his partners acquired much of a lightly populated barrier is
land and mangrove swamp on the Atlantic, east of Miami. Over several years, that barrier island was transformed into Miami Beach. Fisher and his partners capitalized on the gold-rush-style real estate boom in Florida at the time.
Then, in 1926, Fisher and his partners shifted their gaze to Montauk. They intended to replicate their development success in Florida and build the “Miami Beach of the North” there. Montauk, like Miami Beach, was an attractive, underdeveloped, relatively inexpensive seaside location, with lovely beaches, an appealing seasonal climate, and few regulatory barriers. With its deep-water harbor at Fort Pond Bay and railroad connection to New York City, Montauk was irresistible.
Fisher and his partners formed the Montauk Beach Development Corporation as a Florida corporation and then bought 9,000 acres in Montauk. In 1926 and 1927, before zoning, subdivision, wetlands, flood hazard, and ground and surface water regulations were in place, the development corporation filed 12 subdivision maps creating some 2,200 commercial and residential lots ranging in size from 3,000 to 48,000 square feet, with private roads and pocket parks to service them. (Montauk in 2021 had 5,002 total parcels. So the corporation, in 1926 and 1927, created 44 percent of Montauk’s private house and business building lots.)
And all of this before our modern wetlands protection, flood hazard and coastal erosion control, sea level rise, aquifer protection, zoning, subdivision, potable water supply, and wastewater disposal regulations were in place. A kind of Wild West for real estate developers.
The development corporation subdivided Shepherds Neck, downtown, around Fort Pond, around the Montauk Downs golf course, and on the west and south sides of Lake Montauk. It would also build parts of the Miami of the North vision itself, to set the tone, including what we know today as Montauk Manor, Shepherds Neck Inn, the downtown Tower, the Montauk Downs course, and the Montauk Yacht Club. But where would this new development of what had largely been grazing land get its drinking and firefighting water from and how would it dispose of its sewage?
Interestingly, Fisher’s development dream for Montauk was frustrated by a major hurricane hitting Miami Beach in September of 1926. Then, in 1929, the Great Depression further eroded Fisher and the Montauk Beach Development Corporation’s financial resources. By 1932 Fisher was bankrupt and had lost control of his Montauk project.
A much-reduced Carl Fisher died on July 15, 1939, at age 65, following a lengthy illness compounded by alcoholism. And the Town of East Hampton, Suffolk County, New York State, and the people who bought development corporation building lots are left with the prospect of increasingly degraded ground and surface waters, or taking on the responsibility of developing the necessary infrastructure to protect water quality that these early developers never built.
So now, what needs to be done, where, and who pays?
Randall Parsons, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has worked on conservation acquisitions and policy for the Peconic Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy. He lives in Springs and is finishing up a seven-year term on the East Hampton Town Planning Board.