What Mother Nature and The New Inlet Can’t Do — A Bay in Peril

Since early November, when the news first broke that Hurricane Sandy had breached Fire Island in The Otis Pike High Dunes Wilderness Area, and that this ‘new inlet’ was to be left open at least for a time, The New Inlet has either been demonized as the cause of flooding not only across the bay in Mastic, but even 20+ miles away in Lindenhurst, despite any science, or deemed The Great South Bay’s salvation, a washing of our collective sins, Mother Nature left alone to do her thing.

The New Inlet, April 3rd, Sunrise.  Courtesy Michael Patrick
The New Inlet, April 3rd, Sunrise. Courtesy Michael Patrick

But while one could argue that The New Inlet has been an unvarnished good in that it is flushing the Great South Bay of its nitrogen polluted waters

The New Inlet Has Brought Nitrogen Levels In Bellport Bay to Near Oceanic Levels
The New Inlet Has Brought Nitrogen Levels In Bellport Bay to Near Oceanic Levels

and drawing in clearer, more oxygenated waters from the oceans,

Salinity Map of The GSB, Pre and Post Sandy -- Courtesy, SoMAS
Salinity Map of The GSB, Pre and Post Sandy — Courtesy, SoMAS

there will come a time soon enough when The New Inlet is no longer there.    Either The Powers That Be  will close it, or it will close of its own accord.   In fact, it is already starting to shoal up as we head into the spring and summer, as scientists have predicted it would, that being what breaches do:

The New Inlet April 8th
The New Inlet April 8th

 

Meanwhile The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)  may ask The Army Corps of Engineers to close it in September.  The ACOE is already soliciting bids from potential contractors, and readying its resources as the DEC has already requested.

Now clearly, the closing of The New Inlet would be a travesty, a triumph of politics, bureaucracy and fear over science and the local yearning for a healthy, revitalized bay.    Those who are now passionate about The New Inlet, who now see bay bottom hidden for twenty years:

The New Inlet is flushing the murky waters from Bellport Bay
The New Inlet is flushing the murky waters from Bellport Bay — Courtesy Pete Carbocci

Who see seals in the bay

A Baby Seal At The Old Inlet
A Baby Seal At The New Inlet, Courtesy The Nature Conservancy
A seal has been seen cavorting in Carmen's River in Bellport -- Courtesy Michael Busch
A seal has been seen cavorting in Carmen’s River in Bellport — Courtesy Michael Busch

And osprey

Osprey at the New Inlet rebuilding its nest
Osprey at the New Inlet rebuilding its nest

And of course  piping plovers an endangered species with less than 2000 mating pairs left   They find the sandy islets formed within the New Inlet an ideal habitat:

 

Piping Plovers at The New Inlet Courtesy Peter Carbocci
Piping Plovers at The New Inlet Courtesy Peter Carbocci

On top of that, fishing season has begun, and boats are now going out after flounder and stripers, hopeful to giddy about their changes of a good day of fishing.   And the baymen — the clammers and oyster farmers — are looking forward to a healthy bay and harvest, an eventual return of eel grass, and a summer without brown tides, red tides and other algal blooms in the eastern part of The Great South Bay.    And finally, swimmers and boaters look forward to being in clean, clean, aqua waters right here on The South Shore, in a Great South Bay that has not had its own inlet any time in memory.

The Clear Blue Waters Around The New Inlet -- Courtesy Michael Busch
The Clear Blue Waters Around The New Inlet — Courtesy Michael Busch

All of the above images, however, will disappear into memory again soon enough if we do nothing and think Mother Nature will prevail.   As inspiring as the cleaning and recovery of the bay is, what we see above is the result of pure luck — The New Inlet happened to form on Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) land.    That meant that The Army Corps did not have the authority to go and quickly fill in the breach, as it had quickly done with two others Post Sandy.   The sixty day observation period mandated by the 1996 Breach Contingency Plan passed in January.   We are now into April, and try as hard as they did, the politicians — Senator Schumer and Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone — could not force the New Inlet closed.   The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation held fast, as evidence mounted that the New Inlet posed no danger of future flooding, and that in fact The New Inlet was flushing the bay especially around Bellport, where the water in the Great South Bay was perhaps the most polluted.

With The New Inlet, Mother Nature’s true gift was to give us but a glimpse of what the Great South Bay was and could be again.   It’s a challenge to us to take action.   Next summer, will The New Inlet even be there, whether because of nature or man?  Then what?    The bay starts to die again.    Here’s what Mother Nature alone can’t fix, and what we must fix if we want this bay all the way back, New Inlet or no New Inlet:

1.  There are over 100,000 septic tanks whose waste has been seeping into our ground water for decades.   The nitrogenous waste behind our explosive epidemics of algal blooms is from nitrogen first flushed down toilets in the 60’s – 80’s.   Our groundwater is saturated with it, with the nitrogen seeping ever deeper into the aquifer, endangering what’s left of our clean water supply.   That’s 70% of the nitrogen into the bay.  Eco toilets will be an expensive solution, but far cheaper than building the sewer systems that should have been built 40 years ago when Long Island and Suffolk County were growing explosively.

2.  All the habitats that were destroyed by the pollution will not be restored by The New Inlet, even as it would help bootstrap things somewhat, if only for a season.    But for a healthy bay — and one well defended against future storms — we need to bring back the marshes, wetlands, swamps that used to line our shores as well as the shellfish beds, eel grass beds.   All this would help remove nitrogen from the bay water in the future, Inlet or no.

3. We must stop putting lawn fertilizer on our lawns and over using it in agriculture.   They contribute about 12% of the nitrogenous waste to the bay, and during the summer months have been known to trigger deadly blooms.   Each of us must ask ourselves how important a green lawn is when it is killing vast areas of our bay, where we fish, clam, swim and boat.

4. There are by one count 115 different kinds of pesticides in our bay waters.    Why are we injecting poison into our ecosystem?    Aren’t we beyond that?   These toxins have a way of accumulating in the tissues of the animals at the top of the food chain.   That would be us.

5. There are thousands of outfall pipes scattered throughout Suffolk and Nassau county — in the event of a storm, all that oil slick filthy run off goes right into our many rivers and streams and then into the bay.   Mother Nature will not solve that problem.   Only sound policy, town by town will.

In the end, we need to move beyond the whole dispute about The New Inlet — close it / don’t close it — with both sides dug in, one demonizing it, one seeing it as a panacea for all the bay’s problems.    The fact is, the eastern bay before The New Inlet was on life support.   The New Inlet was a respite, a stay of execution, but soon enough the day of reckoning will come again.  Then what?  What do we do now together to make The New Inlet really besides the point and create a real future for The Great South Bay which would also be a return to its past as a major producer of shellfish, and as a fishing and vacationing destination?

For that, Save The Great South Bay recommends that the county and the state empanel a group of experts on The Great South Bay who can help policy makers create a road map toward a healthy, vibrant bay.   In the meantime, Save the Great South Bay will draw from the work of marine biologists from The SUNY Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) and The Nature Conservancy, along with bay advocates like The Citizen’s Campaign For The Environment, The Peconic Baykeeper, Operation Splash! and others to help convey both to policy makers and the general public what’s really at stake in The Great South Bay.  The New Inlet was a blessing, but the best way to show appreciation for this gift is to build on it.

  • “Each of us must ask ourselves how important a green lawn is ” I don’t think it has to be an either or decision of brown lawns or a clean bay. I use Corn Gluten on my lawn and it is greener longer than my neighbors and is less expensive since I only need two applications. The grass doesn’t explode with growth in Spring requiring 2 a week lawn mowings and it doesn’t leach into the soil like the chemical stuff.

    • Mark, this is a whole new topic — eco lawns. We need to come up with green alternatives to commercial fertilizers and promote the makers and the lawn care companies who use them. Some say no additional nitrogen whatever. It’s something we need to work out.

      • KG18

        well a real “eco lawn” doesn’t just have grass… nature doesn’t have only grass.

    • John Hall

      My dogs licked up the corn gluten. I used to use Milorganite, but it’s smelly and tracks into the house. Now I use the Jonathan Green and Espoma products mostly, with great results.