This weekend saw significant numbers of seals (94 harbor seals and 1 grey seal) hauled-out at Cupsogue Beach on a super windy Saturday April 06, 2013. The next day, a calm, spring-like day brought many people to view seals. Those that joined the organized CRESLI seal walk , as usual, got a fact-filled mini-lecture about seals, about the bays, about how to avoid disturbing seals, especially in this time of year where adult females are in their late pregnancy stages. CRESLI walks take people to an area where seals can be viewed without disturbing the seals. Unfortunately, there were other folks viewing the seals from an area too close to the shore. The well-intentioned folks didn’t understand that they were affecting the seals’ behaviors and causing them to avoid hauling out. Luckily, the seals eventually hauled out after most of the “disturbers” left. 11 hauled-out and 11 remained in the water; a far cry from the 95 a day earlier – but such is nature.
By definition editorials are opinions. They are expressions of belief rather than the strict reporting of facts. But as such editorials can often advocate uninformed and irresponsible actions. A newsman, freed of the obligation to substantiate his words, can be a dangerous thing. Such is the case with Peter Kohler, Vice President of Editorial Services for Cablevision in a piece last Thursday, March 29th, for News12, entitled simply Close the Breach. It is an act of lazy opining on behalf of a group of politicians seeking to force a policy decision on the people of Long Island that would benefit the few at the expense of the many. The editorial, like the politicians it defends, completely dismisses the scientific community studying the matter, as well as the many fishermen, baymen, and local citizens who want The New Inlet to be left alone, who don’t see any evidence that The New Inlet is the particular cause of flooding, but who do see ample evidence that it is in the process of flushing and revitalizing a moribund bay.
For months, politicians such as Senator Chuck Schumer and Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, and most recently Congressman Tim Bishop, have been encouraging the view that the flooding we have seen this last winter in Mastic Beach on one end of the Great South Bay, and in Lindenhurst, Freeport, and Babylon in the western part of bay, was being caused at least in part by the New Inlet, despite all the data that has been collected and analyzed around it and despite the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community. Just one glance at this salinity map of the Great South Bay pre and post Sandy shows that there are two plumes of saltier ocean water entering into The Great South Bay — one from The New Inlet, and one from The Fire Island Inlet.
A political decision it seems was taken shortly after Sandy and well before marine, coastal, and climate scientists had really begun their analyses. Nothing that these scientists have found since has held any interest to these politicians. For instance, Steven Bellone, in announcing his renewed call to close the breach March 13th declared, “The time for debate is over,” yet was unable to name one scientist who supported his position. Tim Bishop, for his part, weighed in with this ‘analysis’: Not closing the breach would “leave a portion of Long Island exposed to future damage, effectively creating a funnel through with storm surges can breach the outer defense line of dunes and slam directly into the communities along the Eastern Long Island shoreline.” This sentence was not written by anyone with any understanding of shoreline dynamics. It was written, though with the intent to scare people into supporting a bad policy. Why? Well, there’s $3.2 billion in Sandy Relief funds that has gone to The Army Corps of Engineers and to its contractors, and closing the breach is a project on their list of to dos. Money it seems must be spent on such things, even when
1. There is no evidence to show the breach is contributing to the flooding (more on that below)
2. There are ways that money could actually help those being flooded.
3. The bay is already being transformed by the inflow of clean ocean water and the outflow of dirty, polluted water into the ocean, igniting the prospect of a return of shellfishing, commercial fishing and recreational swimming to a bay that was in the process of dying.
Those against closing the breach include, well, pretty much everyone else who is aware of this issue; scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, fishermen, baymen, many if not most residents of the south shore and apparently, The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. There are still many who remember that the Great South Bay once was a ‘great’ bay and not the sickly lagoon that it has become. Many of them are baymen and fishermen, who know what this breach can mean to the South Shore economy. Maybe that’s why the DEC has been moving so cautiously. They know what’s at really at stake for Long Islanders and the bay.
Nonetheless, Kohler notes with approval that the DEC (The Department of Environmental Conservation) has ‘finally’ begun the process of closing the breach at the Old Inlet. In fact, their memo from March 14th only stipulates that a procedure be put in place in the event that closing it is truly deemed necessary: “This will allow expedited closure of the breach in the event that the breach does not close naturally or if the Breach Contingency Team determines closure to be necessary after evaluating potential impacts to communities, potential for improved water quality of Great South Bay and benefits to habitat resulting from the breach.” This is a far cry from Kohler’s statement, which reads like a fait accompli.
Kohler then cites that the breach has to be closed now because we have been waiting and “hoping it might close on its own. It hasn’t.” Again, anyone who knows anything about the nature of breaches knows that they tend to open in the winter storm season and then shoal up and fill in during the spring and the summer, which is exactly what is happening now. But again Kohler is not concerned with the facts. He is editorializing. Save The Great South Bay has people filming and photographing The Old Inlet every day, and it is in fact filling in just as scientists have predicted.
Kohler then proceeds to do what people who don’t have the facts on their side like to do, namely turn it into an attack on one messenger in this case, Prof Charles Flagg. There is in fact a team of scientists from Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (SoMAS) who have been studying the bay’s dynamics for years, and who since well before Sandy have been monitoring tidal variations throughout the bay and all along the east coast 24X7, and beyond them a community of scientists across the country who are in agreement with Prof. Flagg’s data and conclusions. Here’s Kohler: “Last week, Stony Brook Professor Charles Flagg dismissed that notion [That the breach at The Old Inlet was the cause of flooding], blaming the flooding on a rash of severe ocean storms.” Prof. Flagg in fact went a lot further than that, as did the panel. There’s been severe flooding up and down the east coast. Rapid climate change, after what was by far the hottest year on record in the U.S. is emerging as a contributing factor. Kohler wants to make it all about one man’s opinion while every single marine and climate scientist worth their salt happen to agree with Flagg. Schumer, Bellone, and Bishop have yet to cite just one scientist who agree with them on the science. When pressed at his press conference calling for a closure of the breach March 13th to name just one scientist who supports his view Mr. Bellone could not.
So why would it be that these politicians are so stridently opposed to leaving the breach alone? It may because they are afraid of what might happen if the breach isn’t closed. They need to be seen as ‘doing something.’ And there may be a fair bit of pork barrel politics going on. A lot of lucrative contracts are being handed out to move sand around, with filling the breach coming in at an estimated $10-$15 mil price tag. To be fair, there are also a number of politicians who are not reacting to the fears of some of their constituents by supporting a feel good decision that would do nothing to alleviate the flooding and the suffering, who embrace the evidence and who see the real benefit to having a recovering bay.
There is a responsibility that comes from having a public platform like Mr. Kohler has. It is disappointing to see him carrying water for a few politicians rather than helping to bail out those who need it — those living in flood prone areas, and the many South Shore residents who yearn for a return of The Great South Bay, with all the economic benefits and aesthetic benefits that this would bring. It was once a place of beauty and bounty. It can be again. But we must truly want to understand what it will take to make this a reality. Let’s stop wasting money moving sand around where we don’t need to when we can put it to real use restoring a place we know and love.