The Breach aka Bellport Inlet aka Fireplace Inlet, aka The Old Inlet aka The New Inlet aka The New Inlet at Old Inlet, via Google

A Breach of Protocol? Outdated Science Supporting Bureaucratic Decision Making on The Breach

Many of us (about 35 based on RSVPs, seeing people there) attended “Sandy’s Silver Lining,” A Public Forum on The Breach, held at Bellport Middle School on the 21st between 9:30 – 12:00. The response was strong even though it was the last shopping weekend before Christmas; this issue is still front and center for us, and so about 200 showed in total. Thomas Bruckner should be singled out as having done a marvelous job assembling the panel, and in the presentation, with informative segues between speakers where he showed pics and video from his some 30 trips to the breach / inlet. He’s a natural MC. The sound system was out of whack, but we will get this fixed for next time, for yes, there will be next times, as what Commissioner Soller had to say make clear.

Whereas many going into the room assumed that the question of the breach and what to do was now more or less a settled issue, we discovered instead that our bureaucracies instead refuse to let go of it. There is a whole alphabet soup of local state, and federal agencies that now have a hand in the evaluation process. $1,000,000 has been set aside for them to study the breach and what to do about it. For them, “leave it alone” is but one option among five. They could:

  1. Close it immediately
  2. Set a future date to close it
  3. Make it permanent
  4. leave it alone

The fifth I can’t recall at the moment.

The recent Newsday poll on this issue has 67% of Long Islanders in favor of leaving it alone, and 23% saying close it, with 9% not knowing. And that is before we start taking them on during this evaluation process. Troubling it was for Commissioner of The Fire Island National Seashore Soller to reference the dangers of flooding and damage to homes immediately after two extensive presentations from Prof. Charles Flagg and Prof. Chris Gobler, that amply demonstrated, through a year’s research, the true dynamics of the breach and its effects on the bay. It has stabilized at 400 square meters, this has been the case for the last 9 months. It contributes only 8% to the tidal flushing of the bay, when added up against The Fire Island Inlet, and Moriches Inlet. And it is definitively not a cause of any flooding or tidal surges in Bellport Bay.

It’s enough to flush Bellport Bay, and with that turn back the clock on the bay 50 years, if not 100 I’d add. And no one knows that better than Joe Gagliano, Chairman of The Bellport Village Waterfront Commission, who spoke loudly and passionately for the breach being left alone.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Chris Soller of The Fire Island National Seashore assured us that the evaluation as to what to do about the breach / inlet would be undertaken scientifically and objectively. It seemed strange cite scientific rigor on one hand while otherwise dismissing the conclusions of the previous two speakers, both Phds, with a combined 55 years of experience studying the bay and local marine habitats. No, this all fell under the mandate of a document called The Breach Contingency Plan, which became law in 1996 on the basis of some breaching events in 1992. The document is very long and has a number of agencies contributing. In sum, it gave the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] the power to close any breach immediately, in order to preserve the integrity of Fire Island as a continuous line. The only exception is where there’s a breach on National Park land, which there was. Then a 60 day evaluation period was mandated. Word got around that a miracle was occurring, data showed the flooding was related a series of nor’easters and nothing more, and so the breach was spared.

For now. With the Sandy money now in our coffers, with over 700 million to spend on home raising, on habitat restoration, and beach replenishment, the fate of the breach is much more at issue. $1,000,000 dollars was allocated to study the issue, the roster of agencies who could have a say in this was dizzying, the enormous flow chart indicating the entire path of the decision process, with a couple of red circles detailing just where the public could intervene in the maze of rectangles and triangles (where can I get that slide!!). Commissioner Soller said, there are “different opinions” about this. That may be true, but there are only one set of facts. What really seems at issue is the overarching need to follow bureaucratic procedure, though in that it gives those forces who want the breach closed more opportunity to make it happen.

Commissioner Soller had talked down the option of creating a permanent inlet because you could not have any heavy equipment in National Wilderness Areas, nothing mechanized. By the same token, he stated that the breach could be filled with heavy equipment — via suctioning up 300,000 tons of sand from the ocean and pumping it in — because the ocean beach was not park land. That began at the dune line. A keen bit of sophistry there.

And then finally there’s the document upon with this whole bureaucratic entrapment is based: The Breach Contingency Plan was supposed to be in effect for just 5 years, until 2001. At that time, it was extended to 2007. It is in fact over 20 years out of date, in terms of our understanding of barrier beaches, how inlets form, nitrogen pollution in our waters, habitat restoration, climate change, etc, etc, but yet, was forced to admit, this was the document that was shaping this whole evaluation process, one which, we were assured, would be based upon the best science, and would consider all options.

Well, there is only one option — keep it open. If perhaps some clever, non disruptive way to make it permanent, but that’s hard to imagine. Further, our future options should be to allow other inlets to form, but on park land and on private land, so long as property damage could be mitigated. Because the science shows this what barrier beaches do — they form and reform. An ecologically sound approach to shore line management would recognize that and try not to fight it, a war on nature that is both very expensive and futile.

But that’s not what we have now — we have a bureaucracy clinging to an outdated policy, because that is all they have as a guideline. They do of course recognize that The Breach Contingency Plan is outdated, but not to worry. They’ll get to that sometime after all the Sandy money has been spent and all the decisions made. Small wonder the Environmental Defense Fund is challenging the legal status of The Breach Contingency Plan. They want to hold onto that carte blanche a little longer.

It comes down then to a local struggle between Bellport, and all the South Shore towns, and all the people who love the bay, from the marine scientists who study it, to the many who grew up fishing, clamming, swimming and boating on the bay, against large, powerful agencies used to having their way, whose historic mismanagement of our bay, however, is everywhere to be seen. We have better science now, and a bay on life support.

Does Commissioner Soller want as his legacy to be the FINS Commissioner who presided over the death of Bellport (or Fireplace) Bay by strangulation, for allowing the breach to be closed despite all evidence? We need to tell people what’s at stake, and work to restore Bellport Bay as a habitat while we have this window to do so. That will show people how important it is just to leave the breach alone and let it work its magic.