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.
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?