Sag Harbor Village officials will spend the next several months working with a cadre of experts — from the Peconic Baykeeper to state and county agencies and the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) — to determine the source of pollutants in the drainage ditch at Havens Beach, the village’s sole bathing beach. Following last week’s revelation that CCE detected human DNA in bacteria taken from the ditch, identifying how much of that bacteria exists and where it is coming from will be at the top of the agenda.
On Tuesday, January 12 the village board convened a special work session to receive a status report on the beach from Sag Harbor Village environmental planning consultant Rich Warren of Inter-Science Research Associates.
Warren opened by acknowledging that contaminants, particularly from stormwater runoff, in the Havens Beach ditch is a problem the village has been looking at for a number of years, and was highlighted several years ago by Baykeeper Kevin McAllister. In addition to testing by the Suffolk County Department of Health, for the last year-and-a-half McAllister and Chris Gobler, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook-Southampton completed their own round of testing.
According to Gobler’s study, the outflow ditch adjacent to Havens Beach consistently measured levels of enterococci and fecal coliforms well above healthy standards for a bathing beach or shellfishery during wet weather days. During a handful of wet weather days in 2008 and 2009, Gobler also detected bacterial levels exceeding safe standards in the bathing beach water.
The village’s own testing, conducted with the county and CCE, showed that in addition to DNA from dogs and a variety of birds, bacteria stemming from human DNA was also present in the ditch next to Havens Beach. The same bacteria were not found in the bathing water itself. The bacteria could be from someone using the ditch as a bathroom, from a faulty septic system in one of the nearby homes or from a sanitary system literally sitting in groundwater near the site.
According to Warren, stormwater runoff contaminants in the ditch at Havens Beach, collected from the 138-acre watershed around Sag Harbor, is also likely an issue.
Since these revelations, the county health department, headed by Robert “Mac” Waters has begun a sanitary inventory of homes around the drainage ditch and will attempt to identify the source of any human-related bacteria. The county has also sent a sample from the ditch to a state laboratory, which will test for bacteroides, a more conclusive sign of human-related contamination.
“The expectation is, following this meeting tonight, our group will get together and talk strategy about the next round of sampling,” said Warren, adding they are also hunting for a possible second drainage pipe that connects to the dreen.
Waters also suggested the village adopt its own method for closing the beach if more than an inch of rain falls, as a precautionary measure. While the county normally issues that advisory to 65 beaches throughout Suffolk, Waters said Sag Harbor weather varied drastically from western Suffolk County and the village should create its own protocol.
“Human waste is a potential pathogen – disease causing,” said Waters. “It is a real concern.”
Mayor Brian Gilbride asked Waters how harmful the situation truly is.
“It is very hard to say in terms of the results we have,” said Waters, noting the bathing water itself has tested clean with the exception of a handful of days after storms.
Florian Koch, representing Gobler, said as a former pump out boat operator in Sag Harbor he has watched small children play in the ditch at Havens Beach.
“Even though the beach itself, the bay is fine and does not exceed limits, in the ditch the sampling is always elevated,” said Koch.
“I question the proximity of the dog park and I know that is a little bit of a hot button issue,” said Warren.
“We sampled there in December and we had a hard time not stepping in something,” agreed Waters.
Warren suggested the board look at the dog park and other short-term solutions, like cleaning the drains throughout the watershed. In the long term, Warren said the village will work towards completing a new round of samples, attempt to determine the source of any human-source bacteria found in the samples, as well as non-human bacteria, and begin to identify a remediation plan for the area.
McAllister, he added, has agreed to lend his talents to researching different kinds of remediation plans and in helping the village secure funding for the project.
Warren also suggested the village install signage and fencing around the ditch to keep children out this coming summer, when a remedial plan will not likely be in place.
“How do you create the fencing where it goes across the beach to keep the kids out of that water,” asked Harbor Committee chairman Bruce Tait about the stream that enters the bay from the ditch. He recommended looking into piping the water below the sand.