Hurricane Sandy opened several breaches in Fire Island. Two were almost immediately filled by The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). The third, initially labeled “The Breach,” remained open because it happened on National Park Services land under the jurisdiction of The Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) at The Otis Pike High Dunes Wilderness Area, which starts just west of Smith Point, which is across from Bellport on Long Island’s south shore.
In the wake of Sandy, as a parade of nor’easters repeatedly flooded communities all along The South Shore (and more generally, up and down the eastern seaboard), there were loud, early calls to close this breach as well, particularly from Senator Chuck Schumer, Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, and Congressman Tim Bishop. They spoke on behalf of flooded out residents who were seeking some kind of relief from what was an almost weekly return to misery as storm after storm hit, inundating their homes and neighborhoods.
Continuous monitoring of tides and of the breach itself consistently showed, however, that this breach was in no way contributing to the flooding, and that it was not increasing in size to the point where it would be in any way a threat either to those living along the bay or those with homes on Fire Island. The data showed that the storm surges and tidal fluctuations were in line with historic patterns and with the patterns observed all along the coast during what was a historically rough winter. Increasingly, the data was also showing that this breach was drastically improving the ecology of The Great South Bay for the better, particularly in the Eastern Bay / Bellport Bay, where over decades the water had become increasingly polluted and stagnant, and where algae blooms and fish kills had become very common. Where once there were plentiful shellfish and eelgrass, there was murk. With the breach cleansing this part of the bay, an ecological revitalization began almost immediately. Clear oxygenated water teeming with fish came in with every tide, and with every outgoing tide the polluted, lifeless water in the Eastern Bay was being flushed out. The bay was breathing again. The patient was reviving. Lured by the influx of bait fish from the ocean, seals came through the breach, ospreys nested, larger game fish came back into the bay. Bay bottom that had not been seen in 30 years is now visible.
Along the way, researchers noted to the public that breaches are part of the natural life of barrier beaches. The mistake that we have been making historically on Fire Island and elsewhere was to begin with the assumption that nature was something that had to be channeled and controlled. The solution for Fire Island was not to imagine it as a wall of sand that needed to be shored up periodically, but as a dynamic system that migrates with the weather over centuries, where breaches open, close, reform, and with all that fuel an entire ecosystem. The breach, as it happened, opened near to a place that had been labeled The Old Inlet. From the late 1700s until the 1820’s, The Old Inlet was navigable, and through it cargo and fishing boats traveled to and from Bellport and the Atlantic Ocean.
Further research via old maps showed that in the 1790’s it was referred to as “The New Inlet at South Haven (or so it appears to say),” gaining the name The Old Inlet only after it was closed by two ship wrecks in the 1820s. So what was new is now new again. The bay is renewing itself with the inlet’s reopening. Even so, The Army Corps of Engineers continues to press for closure, as to presumably the politicians who continue to ignore science in favor of ‘doing something.’ It is our hope that this new New Inlet will remain with us, hopefully so long as nature deems it, and will continue to revitalize the Eastern Bay, repairing at least some of the damage we’ve caused from decades of mismanagement and neglect. We hope that it can buy us enough time to address the many water quality issues on the Long Island mainland that led to the bay’s deterioration — seepage from 100,000+ septic tanks, storm runoff from 2000+ outfall pipes that wash into our streams and into our bays 115 different pesticides, lawn fertilizer, the destruction of marshes and eelgrass beds.
Our survival depends on building a sustainable planet. That’s an enormous task unthinkable in its scope. That’s why it needs to happen with every community, right here where we live — in our towns and neighborhoods. That means investing in local nature, and working with it. As The Great South Bay begins to breathe again thanks to the reopening / return of The New Inlet, we need to take this window to reintroduce the shellfish, the fish, the habitats. We need to clean our waters so that future generations can clam, fish, boat, and swim in our waters. Beyond that, we need to stop polluting the aquifer. We live right on top of our drinking water, water left by the glaciers of 10,000 years ago. The upper layers are already compromised by septic tank seepage. That is a big reason why the bay is now suffering. If we as Long Islanders want to have water we can drink, cook and bathe in, we must act now. We need eco toilets installed county wide, ancient septic tanks replaced. We should be banning pesticides and lawn fertilizers too, and removing dams ponds and outfall pipes from streams if we are serious about a future for Long Island. The New Inlet has shown how rapidly nature can come back if given the chance. But it is just temporary. It will close soon enough, where via man or nature. And it only displaces the problem — sending our pollution in diluted form into the ocean.
Nature has given us a window to work with, and a glimpse of what is possible. Let’s take this gift — let’s reopen the past.