The discovery of bacteria from human waste found in the ditch at Sag Harbor’s Havens Beach has prompted a special meeting by the village’s board of trustees. They will meet on Tuesday, January 12, at 5 p.m. to review the findings by officials from Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Working with the Village of Sag Harbor, scientists from Cornell Cooperative Extension, using samples taken by the Suffolk County Department of Health, discovered DNA evidence of fecal coliforms in the drainage ditch adjacent to Sag Harbor’s lone bathing beach. Sag Harbor Village engaged Cornell Cooperative Extension to discover the source of bacteria this fall in an effort to determine where any contaminants originated from before laying out a plan for remediation of the ditch.
During dry weather sampling, taken on October 6, Cornell discovered both human and bird coliforms in the ditch water. During wet weather sampling, taken the next day, Canada goose, herring gull, dog and human coliforms were detected, according to Sag Harbor environmental planning consultant Richard Warren. On the same days, in the bathing water itself, Warren said dry day testing showed black duck coliforms and on the wet weather data showed unknown coliforms, although not human in nature.
The Suffolk County Department of Health tests for enterococcus, not coliforms, explained Warren, due to changes in county health department standards, making it difficult to discern at this time how much of the bacteria stems from a human or animal source or as a result of stormwater runoff.
“It is something we will have to have a discussion about,” he said on Wednesday. “We will have to discuss how we try and determine what the percentage is that is being contributed by the different sources.”
According to Warren, testing completed by the county health department throughout the summer and fall, in addition to testing completed by Chris Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook-Southampton who has been working with the Peconic Baykeeper to study water quality at Havens Beach, does lead him to believe there is bacterial contamination on certain days in the ditch at Havens.
“There is fairly significant attenuation occurring in terms of the enterococcus once it reaches the saltwater,” added Warren. “But that doesn’t mean we want it to reach the saltwater.”
Warren said it is his recommendation that additional samples be run by both the county and Cornell Cooperative Extension, to ensure the results can be relied upon as the village moved towards creating a clean-up plan for the ditch.
The drainage ditch collects water from 130 acres around Sag Harbor. Peconic Baykeeper Kevin MacAllister forced a spotlight on the possibility of stormwater runoff contaminating the ditch over two years ago, setting off a controversy about the water quality at Sag Harbor’s only bathing beach. Since then, village officials, working with the Baykeeper and with the county department of health, have sought to discover the source of any spikes in bacterial counts in the drainage ditch before developing a plan to remedy the problem.
The discovery of the possibility of a human source of bacteria in the ditch led Warren to have the village’s building department inventory the age of homes in the watershed. That inventory will be used by the county health department in a sanitary survey, meant to discern whether the bacteria is a result of groundwater discharge or an improperly installed or maintained private sewage system.
“My guess is we won’t have the answers before the end of the summer,” he said.
On Tuesday, Warren will present a progress report as well as the next steps the village will have to undertake. Representatives from the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Suffolk County Department of Health will also be in attendance and MacAllister and Gobler are expected to make a presentation on their year-and-a-half study on water quality at the beach.
On Monday, MacAllister said he was pleased to see the village taking action on the issue, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
“From day one, I have felt this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed,” he said. “As long as the village is committed to following through on this investigation to find out all of the details I am okay with it, as long as there is a commitment to do something about this in the future.”
MacAllister said he plans to be a part of the process until it reaches a conclusion, which he hopes will include the creation of a reconfigured bio-filtration system leading into the drainage ditch.
“To the extent I can, I will also help identify funding sources and try and contribute in helping the village package a grant proposal that will have a good chance of being approved,” he said.