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Poisoning the Well

What’s wrong with the water in East Hampton? More than you might have imagined

Bucolic summertime images of East Hampton stand in stark contrast to those of manatees dying of toxic algae blooms in Florida, hypoxic dead zones and out-of-work watermen in the Chesapeake Bay and Toledo Ohio residents waiting in long lines for bottled water. However, symptoms of what’s often called “nutrient pollution” have now become so common on Long Island that this summer local cable news station News12 started a weekly island-wide water quality report to help residents plan their weekend recreation activities. And this nutrient pollution doesn’t discriminate: Even the 290-acre Georgica Pond in exclusive East Hamptons is not immune to symptoms of water pollution from excess nutrients—and residents and officials have taken notice.  

The symptoms in Georgica Pond include massive fibrous mats of floating macro algae called Cladophora, which have combined with a toxic brew of blue-green algae known as Mycrosystis. The toxin produced by the Mycrosystis is so worrisome that officials have warned against even coming in contact with the water and earlier this summer closed the pond to fishing and crabbing. This is the same type of toxic algae that is plaguing western Lake Erie and contaminated Toledo’s drinking water supply, contributing overall to sickness in humans and even the death of a dog. 

But what makes Georgica Pond so interesting is the possibility that motivated residents, top scientists and attentive local officials could be at the forefront of reversing the symptoms of the nutrient pollution that has become an island-wide, and arguably a world-wide, problem.  

Scientists like Dr. Chris Gobler at Stony Brook University, a global expert on algae blooms, understand that the out-of-control aquatic plant growth and the amount of toxins they produce are directly linked to excess loading of nitrogen and phosphorous.  

Although a specific study of the Georgica Pond watershed is still pending, studies of similar areas on Long Island done at Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole by The Nature Conservancy on Long Island and by Stony Brook University show that nutrient pollution is largely originating from Long Island’s reliance on antiquated cesspools and septic systems to service residential and even commercial business’ waste water. Even when these systems are functioning as designed, they do not remove nitrogen that travels through the ground to nearby surface waters like Georgica Pond and also contaminates Long Islanders’ only source of clean drinking water, which also comes from the ground. Residential and agricultural fertilizers also contribute to the nutrient problem, as much of the applied fertilizer is not used by the plants and instead gets into the water where it fuels the problematic aquatic algae.

The percent contribution of each nitrogen source depends on the number of septic systems, the amount of lawns and how they are cared for, as well as the types of nearby agriculture. The Nature Conservancy’s analysis of neighboring Peconic Bay watershed shows that the proportion of each nitrogen contribution source is slightly different based on land use.

Another final critical factor is that enclosed stagnant water bodies, basically those that have little or no mixing with a larger waterway such as Atlantic Ocean, are most prone to problematic symptoms of nutrient pollution because the nutrients do not get diluted.   

Georgica is unusual in that the trustees of East Hampton have the ability to open and close a cut that allows the pond to mix with the Atlantic Ocean. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy opened a new inlet in eastern Great South Bay 40 miles to the west. This new exchange with the Atlantic has gone a long way to restoring the water quality in that area. Nearing the new inlet’s second anniversary, residents and fishermen in eastern Great South Bay have been celebrating this remarkable recovery, which provides a solid example of what is possible at Georgica Pond.

Scientists warn that plans to manage the cut from Georgica Pond to the Atlantic Ocean should be done thoughtfully so as not to create other problems such as stranding of this summer’s macro-algae along the shore where it will decay and smell, or in shallow pools where it will use up oxygen. But the path to recovery seems like it is within reach.   

Arguably, if any pond in the world could be saved, it would be Georgica PondAfter all, Steven Spielberg has a home here, as do Calvin Klein and Ron Perlman. This is, in short, some of the most valuable real estate in the world. There is every incentive to fix the pond, and, in theory, the financial means to do it.    

The formula to save Georgica Pond should include the following actions:

• Scientists and town trustees must develop and implement an inlet management plan that prioritizes the water quality and health of the pond as a driver for when the ocean inlet is opened and closed. 

• Residents should change lawn and yard care practices, cut back on or eliminate the use of fertilizers and create wide buffers of native vegetation (which will not require irrigation or fertilizer) between lawns and the edge of the pond.  

• It’s no longer acceptable to dispose of residential and commercial wastewater in a hole in the ground. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has committed to approving the use of modern septic systems that remove harmful forms of nitrogen from the waste stream by 2015. Most Georgica Pond residents have the wherewithal to be early adopters in their community and do so right away.   

• Agricultural impacts to Georgica Pond need to be quantified and sustainable farming objectives that do not degrade water quality should incentivized and/or regulated.   

What is called for at Georgica Pond is to a great extent what any community anywhere can adopt to save their local pond or bay. Georgica, in fact, is a microcosm of all of the problems facing many water bodies. It has agricultural inputs, a commercial corridor and residential areas all contributing to one small body of water. If we can demonstrate how to address the multitude of pollution problems here, we can do it anywhere.

What we are seeing now, today, across the country, as pond, lake, river and bay, one after another tip over, is the result of short sighted and outdated policies. Now that we see the effect of dumping massive amounts of fertilizers on the ground, of improper water treatment and management, we are waking up and seeking a way to a future we want to live in. We have been here before: The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, and with that many bodies of water were brought back from the brink. Today we are experiencing threats never anticipated then, and once more much is in peril. It was less than 10 years ago, for instance, that nitrogen seepage from cesspools and septic tanks was definitely linked to the algal blooms that were killing all the bays around Long Island. With 360,000 septic tanks in Suffolk County, we have a lot to do.

But we can start at Georgica Pond.



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