By Annette Hinkle
Water quality is an issue that has long been on the radar screens of environmentalists and scientists on the East End. But in recent years, even average citizens couldn’t fail to notice the degradation of local waterways through an increasing number of algal bloom events.
These events go by names like rust tide or brown tide and over time, have been responsible for the decimation of eel grass beds — crucial habitat for scallops — and the reduction in numbers of other species of shellfish and finfish as well.
Water quality is a top issue for Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who wants the East End to become a hub for clean water technology. Recently, she presented Governor Andrew Cuomo with a proposal in which the state, county, SUNY Stony Brook and local environmental groups would ban together to address water degradation on the East End.
To that end, last Friday as part of his talk on the “State of the Bays, 2014” at Stony Brook Southampton, Dr. Christopher Gobler of the university’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (SOMAS) began the evening by announcing that his team of researchers are actively engaged in assessing Long Island’s coastal waters. Soon, they will be sharing that information with organizations and municipalities so they can act on it in a meaningful way.
Dr. Gobler is the director of LICCRA (Long Island Coastal Conservation Research Alliance). The alliance is made up of graduate students, post doctorate researchers and lab technicians and their research will give solid numbers to environmental groups, policy makers, elected officials and citizens as they work toward finding real solutions to improve water quality.
“We monitor and do research on coastal waters and can share our science,” explained Dr. Gobler who added that going forward, water quality updates will be posted regularly on LICCRA’s Facebook page. “We want to communicate our science to people who can make a difference.”
And when it comes to that science, Dr. Gobler reports there is much to be concerned about. Harmful algal blooms, hypoxia (or low oxygen) and general water impairment are all taking their toll on Long Island waterways. Degradation is worse in western Nassau County, where geography makes it difficult for tidal flushing to carry out toxins, but Suffolk County waterways experienced some serious issues in the last couple years as well, especially parts of Great South Bay, Shinnecock Bay and even local ponds.
“Nitrogen loading is an issue driving many of these trends,” said Dr. Gobler who notes that in 2009, the journal Science saw an overabundance of nitrogen in the environment as a global threat to humanity.
“The local view is we’ve known that nitrogen is a critical factor and can change the state of coastal ecosystems,” said Dr. Gobler.
In 2013, Lake Agawam in Southampton Village, Long Pond in Bridgehampton and Mill Pond in Water Mill were all closed for a time because of blue-green algae, or cyanotoxin — a bacteria caused by an overabundance of nitrogen which can result in illness or death in dogs who drink from affected ponds.
“More nitrogen makes these cells more toxic and more plentiful,” noted Dr. Gobler.
While there are many sources of excess nitrogen in waterways, including lawn fertilizers and road run-off, Dr. Gobler notes that research coming out of SUNY Stony Brook indicates the primary culprit is wastewater. According to Dr. Gobler, Suffolk County’s own research predicts that if nitrogen levels are not lowered, there will be no eel grass beds left in the county in 20 years.
“All this is predictable based on many studies that have been done on how nitrogen loading affects sea grass,” explained Dr. Gobler. “Productivity shifts from the bed to surface waters, like algal blooms.”
Salt marshes are critical habitats for filtering pollutants and sheltering migratory birds, but Dr. Gobler explains that when nutrients are found in surface waters, sea grass no longer needs to dig down for nutrients, the roots are weakened and the marsh falls apart.
Other major issues, particularly in western Nassau County, has been low oxygen, or hypoxia, and a disturbing trend that scientists like Dr. Gobler only recently started to study in Long Island waters — acidification.
“Nitrogen leads to algal blooms and a reduction in oxygen. The same process that takes oxygen out of water also lowers ph,” explained Dr. Gobler. “It’s an emerging issue, but one important for fisheries.”
“We don’t yet have a good sense of the effects of hypoxia and acidification in marine animals,” added Dr. Gobler, “ but as ph levels decline, so do oxygen levels and animals have to deal with both.”
“For decades researchers were able to regulate oxygen in the lab, but ignored ph,” he added. “We’ve come up with a system to create both situations in the lab.”
Dr. Gobler said while SOMAS research has found that low oxygen effects the size and survival rate of bay scallops, the addition of acidification makes the outcome that much worse.
“They’re smaller and have a much lower survival rate compared just to hypoxic scallops or those grown in ideal situations,” explained Dr. Gobler. “With hard clams, it’s the same situation. When we create the situation of low oxygen and low ph together, which we have in our coastal systems, these organisms show lower growth rates than if they were just subjected to either low oxygen or ph alone.”
One of the most effective natural methods for reducing nitrogen in waterways is flushing — the health of water bodies that experience frequent exchange with ocean waters tend to improve quickly.
“Dilution is the solution to pollution,” said Dr. Gobler, noting that overall, East Hampton waters are in better shape than water bodies to the west because of the town’s position near open ocean waters.
“East Hampton Town waters are very well flushed — except for Three Mile Harbor,” said Dr. Gobler, adding that Alexandrium and Dinophysis (two toxic dinoflagellates) and rust tide have all been found there.
“What’s happening in Three Mile Harbor?” asked Dr. Gobler. “Look carefully, it’s not only an inlet, but there’s a second spit of land to the south. It has a very long flushing time.”
To illustrate, Dr. Gobler points to a breach created in Great South Bay in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy which has greatly improved water quality because of the increased flushing. The water quality in the back portions of Great South Bay and western Shinnecock Bay, conversely, has not substantially improved due to its distance from ocean inlets and longer flushing times.
While flushing can be effective in improving water quality, the best course of action is to work to lower nitrogen levels in the water. Dr. Gobler notes that since wastewater is the primary culprit, improving sewer and septic systems should be a priority.
“We should be targeting poorly flushed regions first,” said Dr. Gobler. “In January our county executive [Steve Bellone] declared the top priority of his administration was clean water – both ground and surface. He made his case to the governor we need to reduce nitrogen loading. Bellone has requested $750 million to sewer regions in western Suffolk and Mastic/Shirley Forge River region.”
“In western Suffolk, they will be hooking more homes up to the Bergen Point plant, expanding the southwest sewer district,” said Dr. Gobler. “In the Forge River area they’re looking at building a new plant.”
Dr. Gobler added that on the East End where homes are spread out and on large parcels, building a central treatment facility is not logical or feasible. But upgrading septic systems is, and one audience member lamented that while new, environmentally sensitive systems are on the market, none have been approved for use locally.
“I share your frustration,” said Dr. Gobler. “But there is positive movement on the county level. Two weeks ago The Nature Conservancy and officials from Suffolk County toured facilities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Jersey that use systems that aren’t approved here.”
“I agree we’re behind the curve,” he added. “But there are hopeful signs at the county level that they’re taking this seriously and looking at solutions that can be implemented where we need them.”
“New technologies need to get on line,” he said.