Once the Village of Sag Harbor has identified with certainty that contaminants in the drainage ditch at Havens Beach are related to stormwater runoff and not another source, it will move forward with a remediation plan, according to Mayor Greg Ferraris, although what that plan will be remains to be seen.
For two years now, the village has been in an ongoing discussion with Peconic BayKeeper Kevin MacAllister about water quality in the ditch, and whether stormwater runoff contaminants or fecal coliforms found in the ditch itself are contaminating water off the popular bathing beach.
Over a year ago, MacAllister, who had engaged the services of Chris Gobler, a Stony Brook Southampton associate professor and director of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Program, had agreed to a testing protocol for Gobler’s research of the water quality at Havens Beach. At a meeting last August, a full-year schedule was agreed to, and Gobler, MacAllister and village officials vowed not only to determine what the water quality was at the beach and in the ditch, which runs north to south through marshlands and onto the beach, but also what the source of any contamination was.
As the dreen collects stormwater runoff from drains throughout Sag Harbor, MacAllister has long maintained he believes this is a stormwater runoff issue, but after hearing complaints from neighbors over concerns that boats could be illegally dumping waste into the bay, village officials said they wanted to identify the source of any contaminants with certainty before they moved forward, banning dogs at Havens Beach until the testing was completed to ensure results were not skewed by their waste.
Expecting results from Gobler in April, village officials said they were kept in the dark about the results of his testing before a poster was unveiled at a college symposium charging that Gobler found levels of bacteria exceeding appropriate levels for shellfish and bathing by 31 percent and 44 percent, respectively, during the full-year of testing.
However, on Monday night, the village’s harbor committee convened a session with Robert “Mac” Waters of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Bureau of Marine Resources, whose team by law tests the water quality in the bathing area at Havens Beach weekly.
Waters said his results differed greatly from the results displayed on the college poster, and he reached out to Gobler via e-mail to discern the differences between their results. According to Waters, Gobler apologized for the fact that the posted results included a number of samples taken from the dreen itself, and not the bathing beach, meaning the results are not indicative of the water quality specifically in the bathing portion of the beach.
In fact, Waters told the harbor committee that the county has only found levels of enterococcus that exceed state standards five times out of 110 samples collected at Havens from 2004 to 2008. Enterococcus is a bacteria the county tests for that helps determine water quality. It can cause health-related issues in humans such as urinary tract infections, diverticulitis and meningitis.
Waters said his results were specific to the bathing area of the beach, which his department hopes to start testing twice a week, rather than once. The department is also going to start a testing protocol in the ditch itself, which he noted can have elevated levels of enterococcus, particularly after a heavy rainfall.
While Waters assured “this beach is not a killer,” he did note the county, as a precaution, will issue a recommendation that county residents do not bathe for 24 hours at any beach with a stormwater runoff drain tied to it after a heavy rainfall. Unlike last year, added Waters, the county will start using local weather, rather than weather across the county, to determine when an advisory is issued.
“The take home out of this, from the testing we are doing, is that except for exceptional rain event days, Havens Beach is safe for bathing,” said harbor committee chairman Bruce Tait. “It is not exceeding levels.”
However, due to levels found in the drainage ditch, Tait and committee members expressed concern over parents allowing their children to play in the ditch. He asked trustees to place a sign at the ditch prohibiting people from playing in that water.
“I think it is great to put this issue, how big or small it may be, in the context of remediating stormwater runoff in the village,” said committee member Brian Halweil, who said he would also like to ask the village to begin looking for grants to address the stormwater runoff problem once the village’s research is complete.
On Tuesday, MacAllister said he was fairly certain this was a stormwater runoff issue, due to the salinity of water in the ditch itself, which had properties matching fresh water rather than bay water. He did add it was possible waste from waterfowl, dogs and other wildlife could have an impact on the water in the dreen, but as testing shows spikes in bacteria following heavy rains, stormwater runoff is more likely at the root of the issue.
MacAllister said he did not disagree with Waters that, as long as there has not been significant rainfall, swimming in the bathing area at Havens Beach is safe; although he said water in the ditch itself does pose a public health threat.
“I completely agree with Mac’s representation, but I would add a caveat,” said MacAllister. “I think it behooves the community to be cognizant of rainfall relative to the times they swim at Havens Beach.”
As for the lack of communication between Gobler and the village, MacAllister said he would try to bridge the gap in an effort to speed up remedial efforts at the beach.
According to Rich Warren, Sag Harbor’s environmental consultant, the village is just at the beginning stages for planning how it will handle the drainage ditch at Havens Beach should it be determined this is specifically a stormwater runoff issue, which he agreed was the most likely culprit. Warren said he will work with the harbor committee to formalize a program that will include additional testing. Warren is searching for a lab willing to identify the source of bacteria found in the ditch, and hopes to present the committee with cost estimates for that project at next month’s meeting.
As for a remedial plan, Warren said it would ultimately depend on the source of the bacteria, although if it is stormwater runoff, he noted there is technology available in the form of filter inserts for drainage basins. While Warren noted those inserts will certainly aid water quality in the ditch, filtering out sediments, oils and the like, he expected additional remedial efforts may also be needed.
On Tuesday at the Sag Harbor Village Board meeting, Mayor Greg Ferraris continued the discussion, telling community members the bathing beach is safe to swim in and explaining the county would issue advisories as a precaution during the warmer months of the year after large rain events. He asked Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano to purchase a sign to let village residents know when an advisory has been issued.
“I think we are all of the same mindset that these elevated levels are a result of stormwater runoff,” said Ferraris. “Although I don’t think we should make a decision until we know 100 percent this is the issue. Then we can more forward with some remediation.”