Into the Breach

In an Orwellian irony, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the State’s bulwark against the forces of pollution and habitat destruction, is being pressured to do exactly the opposite of protecting the environment. It’s being called on to commence the closing of the last ‘Sandy caused’ breach of Fire Island:  the breach at Old Inlet.

The New Inlet -- Courtesy SoMAS
The breach at The Old Inlet or “The New Inlet” — Courtesy SoMAS


This action will cost about 20 million dollars and will destroy uncounted wildlife in the process.  This action will have no effect on flooding, and the money can be better spent elsewhere.  This barrier island breach represents a lifeline that has been thrown to the dying lagoon known as the Great South Bay.  It is designated for closure because of a short sighted and antiquated coastal policy, and because of the fecklessness of our elected leaders.

The people who crafted barrier island policy for the State of New York fifty years ago (called the Fire Island to Montauk Reformulation Project and it’s corollary 1996 Breach Contingency Plan) gave the DEC the decision about when to close any storm wrought Fire Island breaches. Which is to say: they gave the decision to the Governor.

Existing New York State policy regarding such breaches can be boiled down to two bullets: First, each of the three South Shore bays (Great South, Moriches and Shinnecock) will each be served by its’ own inlet. Second, all emergent breaches will be closed.  When the policy was developed, there were voices of dissent, but there was not enough opposition to prevent the State and the Army Corps of Engineers from implementation.  It’s this policy that is killing the bay.

The ‘no new breaches’ policy wasn’t very controversial before Sandy. As a general rule, you don’t want new inlets popping up along the ocean shoreline every time a hurricane hits. If they occur in the wrong places, they can cause problems. But in the unpredictable ways that hurricanes behave, this one carved a new inlet in very possibly the perfect location for a such new inlet: in the middle of the Otis Pike Wilderness area in the Fire Island National Seashore.  It’s a location that hasn’t had an inlet since Andrew Jackson was President, it’s remote, and that eastern part of the bay is highly polluted.  This happened at a time when there is a growing consensus that the Great South Bay is in big trouble.  The new breach is small, all of 100 yards wide, but it has had an unarguably salubrious effect on the eastern Great South Bay. Much more of an effect, in fact, than any of our human efforts. And that doesn’t surprise anyone who knows about this issue.

New York State recognizes the Great South Bay as a valuable estuary.  The South Shore Estuary Reserve (LISSER) Council was created and empowered to draft a plan to protect the entire watershed: including the feeder system of rivers and streams that drains into the bay. The LISSER Council published a model plan that included specific strategies and engineering practices, code modifications and a host of other mandates that local governments are required to follow and implement going forward, and that are designed to reduce pollution in the bay. Since the LISSER has the force of State Executive Law behind it, all of the South Shore towns have had to adopt a version of the model plan. Funding is another issue.

The LISSER plan goes a long way towards setting Long Island on a path to dealing with the runoff and other contaminating waste that ends up in the bay, but it will likely take decades to make a real difference in the water quality of the bay. This is because many of the most effective practices mandated by the LISSER plan will only be put in place when new work is done, since, for example, it would be prohibitively expensive to reengineer the entire South Shore runoff system all at once.  Most importantly, the LISSER plan stops short of the ocean shoreline.

It is generally agreed that the bay may not ever recover its’ lost glory if more isn’t done. Novel ideas to give the bay more oceanic exchange have been kicking around for years, large pipes under Fire Island for example, or moving Fire Island Inlet to the east, but none has been funded.

Meanwhile, scientists have been studying the bays’ health, and it isn’t good. Among the things that they have been finding are hypoxic areas where nothing can survive: dead zones. The nearly perennial issue of brown tide is also being studied, as are the storm runoff caused beach and clam bed closures. The science is important, but most residents only need to consult their own experience: the fish have all but vanished from the bay, oysters are a memory, as are the scallops, and the clam beds are often closed due to contamination. The Great South Bay is being smothered, many islanders know this, and we’ve never before had a Great South Bay breach to help save it.

That’s why, immediately upon its’ creation on on October 29, 2012, the Old Inlet breach caused a buzz. Islanders of all stripes took an interest in this slender cut, in its’ potential impact on the bay, and began asking ‘what will become of this new inlet?’ The answer was unwelcome news. On December 1, 2012, at a meeting in the Village Hall in Bellport, the Army Corps of Engineers, reading from the existing playbook, announced that the breach will be closed. Since the breach is in a national wilderness area, the closure was delayed: otherwise it would have been closed already, like the other two storm-caused breaches.

New York is a state with some very robust environmental laws; it is a state that is governed by a self-proclaimed progressive; it is a state which allegedly has our best human and environmental interests at heart and it is a state that proclaims in Governor Cuomos’ own NYS2100 Plan that: “long term solutions will need to consider the benefits of breaches in specific areas.” The same plan specifically discusses the breach at Old Inlet as the possible site of better options, such as letting the wetlands take care of themselves. Which is precisely what we should be doing.  But we’re not.

So the Old Inlet has become the site of a battle between a coalition of environmentalists, conservationists, scientists, residents and sportsman, calling for leaving the breach alone, against the South Shores’ elected political leaders, including County Executive Bellone, Congressman Bishop and Senator Schumer, pushing the settled policy. (Governor Cuomo has thus far remained aloof.) It has played out as follows: there is a storm, the politicians howl about flooding and the possible depradations from future storms, and their satraps among the press echo their words.  Those opposed counter with the facts, pointing out that even a cursory examination of the science and history shows no evidence that this breach effects flooding, or that it presents a risk of catastrophic storm damage.

One feels impelled to ask: what do we have the right to expect from State conservation officials? Will the DEC accede to the destruction of this breach, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clean up the bay? When the politicians next utter their demands, will the DEC knuckle under? Does the Governor care enough about the health of the Great South Bay to put a stop to this senselessness?



    • Eliza Kay says:

      No you dont, especially if you make this political. Its the policy that has to be modified and updated. Get the policy changed and legislators will fall in line.

      • John Hall says:

        I agree one hundred percent, Eliza. The political leadership, regardless of party, will only stop the theatrics if the policy is changed. They need to hear the truth from the experts.

    • John Hall says:

      Robin, I hear the frustration. Our leaders are not listening and some have indicated that they have no intention of listening. It’s a bipartisan shun, they think we’re crackpots. We’re not crackpots and we’re going to prevail.

  1. surfnetter77 says:

    Can someone please explain to me how Dr. Flagg’s “bathtub” process where the easterly gales push the water from the area of the breach to the western portion of the Bay causing flooding to the west “like tipping a bathtub” is no longer in play? He had photos and graphs at the first hearing in Bellport after Sandy to show this. During noreasters the Bellport Bay becomes lower from the effect of the wind while the ocean is abnormally higher for the same reason. This disparity causes a furious flow of water through the new breach which causes even worse flooding to the west than happened before the breach opened and widened– and also immediately east in the Narrows flooding Mastic Beach.

    • The data — Flagg’s own data combined with data from other monitoring sites — shows consistently that the New Inlet is not increasing flooding by any measurable amount. There was terrible flooding this winter. A lot of water was flushed via all the inlets. The New Inlet, being but a small fraction of the FI and Moriches Inlets, had mostly a local effect on the Eastern GSB and Bellport Bay. What’s happening in Islip/Babylon 15-20 miles away is whole different dynamic.

      • surfnetter77 says:

        Dr. Flagg got a round of applause after he had showed photos and graphs of flooding events in Bellport Bay on westerly gales prior to Sandy telling the good people of Bellport that that breach was now an outlet to the ocean that would prevent such flooding events in the future. He also had shown photos and graphs of Bellport Bay emptied out during easterly gales; he failed to mention that what that meant was that the western portion of the Bay — as far away as the Town of Hempstead (this is where he said the floods in Bellport on westerlies came from — “Hempstead’s water” is a direct quote — and he said it twice) flooded with water that originated in eastern portions of Brookhaven Town during noreasters. He then showed a graph saying that the tides were close to normal heights on easterly gales since the opening of the breach. At that time the breach was much smaller than it has become. By what magic is the millions of gallons of new water flowing into Bellport Bay during easterly gales not adding to the flooding that normally happened to the west before the breach was there …?

        • John Hall says:

          Surf, I was at the meeting too, and Dr. Flagg said exactly what you claim he said. The bathtub analogy, with the breach acting like a relief valve during westerlies. No argument there. He didn’t discuss increased western bay flooding during easterlies, and it’s not supported by the data. In fact, the flooding that was seen over the winter was bad all up and down the seaboard. Same patterns. Data is being collected at several locations in the bay, and that data does not evidence any increase in flooding caused by the breach. The numbers don’t lie. Nobody’s happy about the flooding that happened over the winter, and there are lots of flood victims who are on the fb page every day talking about it. I hope you’re not one of them and if you are, you have my sincere sympathy. I hope your getting what you need to put things back together. It’s just not about the breach.

          • surfnetter77 says:

            The “data” — raw data is putty in the hands of an environmentalist. I am asking for a simple explanation of how a simple process caused by the topography of the Great South Bay is no longer taking place. The people who have lived with the regular flooding as a result of this effect — who have seen it happen every time it has occurred for years and decades are now all saying it is much more frequent and much worse — as the fact a new breach in exactly the right place to make that happen dictates by any simple analysis says it would. And the only people who could possibly benefit from the breach remaining open by obtaining taxpayer funded grants to study the effects of the breach on marine life are saying “that data does not evidence any increased flooding caused by the breach.” The fact that the people who live there are reporting increased and more frequent flooding during the weather events that they have witnessed for decades is data that you have to apply to your numbers. Because numbers don’t lie — but environmental scientists do on a regular basis when it will further their careers and their bank accounts.

    • John Hall says:

      Surfnetter, first I am not a spokesman for Dr. Flagg. HIs data is public. I saw those charts too, and I’m not aware that anything has changed in the response of the GSB to easterly/westerly wind events. According to all of the data I’ve seen, the breach hasn’t measurably changed the amplitude of tides in the Bay. What flooding we’ve seen in the lowlying areas is due to larger weather patterns that are affecting the whole Atlantic coast.

    • Purely as a point of logic: if the new inlet allows more water in to exacerbate the “bathtub” process, shouldn’t it exacerbate the draining process … sort of like putting a bigger “drain” in the “bathtub”? Just a thought.

      • surfnetter77 says:

        Of course it does, Gary — it will drain it when the water in that part of the Bay is higher than the water in the ocean. The inlets are “gravity feeds” — the higher water flows to low. The Bay having a long east-west “fetch” will respond to strong east winds by having localized storm surges to the west and lower levels on the eastern portion — i.e., Bellport Bay. The same thing works in the ocean on a much larger scale. Easterly gales push water up against our ocean beaches because of the “funnel effect” of Long Island/NY/NJ causing a high storm surge along the barrier beach. Noreasters bring high water on the ocean side and low water in the Bay in the area of the breach. The water under those conditions flows furiously into the Bay through the breach and then gets pushed west by the easterly gale. This will continue until the wind switches. The water level between the Bay and the ocean may equalize or even reverse but as long as the easterly gale continues the water will get pushed westward hindering the draining effect. The flooding in the western portion has to be worsened by that breach being there — no matter how the marine scientists interpret the “data”. A simple Google search of the vast amount of research done by Rutgers University and others in years past will show you that they have always worried about a breach opening there causing major flooding on the mainland.

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