Nature Notes: Will We Ever Learn?

Land and water
Georgica Pond near Montauk Highway in East Hampton David E. Rattray

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to. . . .

Land and water. The two most important things on the South Fork. In one sense, the water is on top, the land below. In another, the land is on top, the water below. Or it could be that both are on top or both below. It all depends upon your orientation. Without the benefit of X-ray vision we can see the land and the water. What we can’t see is the subsurface soil and the groundwater situated between the soil grains, extending hundreds of feet below the surface. For most of us living here, it is the most life-sustaining water of all.

Under almost all of our freshwater ponds here, except for a few in Montauk that we call “perched” ponds, there is no barrier between the groundwater, or aquifer, extending below. The eastern three-quarters of Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk Counties, utilize this groundwater for drinking, washing, irrigating, and the like. The western third gets most of its fresh water piped underground from reservoirs in the counties north of New York City. The water in the aquifer beneath Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx is no longer fit to drink.

Consequently, in the absence of daily consumptive draw-down, the surface of that aquifer is rising day in day out, creating problems for basements and other underground structures in low-lying areas. We have just the opposite problem on the East End. The top of our upper aquifer, the upper glacial aquifer, is slowly ebbing. Rainwater raises it, our everyday uses draws it down. In the famous drought of the 1960s, this aquifer shrank to the degree that small ponds such as Poxabogue Pond in Sagaponack almost dried up.

As the water needs of the swelling summer and year-round populations increase, along with their business and institutional needs, the top of the aquifer slowly recedes. Fortunately, in western East Hampton Town and throughout Southampton Town, a deeper aquifer, the Magothy, compensates for the losses. The North Fork is not so fortunate. It has no Magothy and most of its groundwater is not potable. Water has to be piped in from the west.

Montauk also has no freshwater Magothy aquifer, and Shelter Island has only the upper glacial aquifer, which is so thin that water has to be trucked in by ferry to fill swimming pools. Fishers Island, part of Southold Town but closer to Connecticut, is the only part of eastern Long Island that has a freshwater lake, a “reservoir,” to satisfy almost all of its freshwater needs.

Recently, several new toxins have been found in domestic private well waters in different parts of the South Fork, especially those recently discovered in Wainscott near the East Hampton Airport. They are not going to be easily dealt with. Their appearance may be just the tip of an iceberg spreading throughout the South Fork. For the time being, public water is the only saving grace.

Groundwater is one thing, surface water is another, but they are connected. In the last few years our surface waters have been taking a whipping. First it was the brown tides of the 1980s. Now our marine waters are visited annually by one or more different colored tides, the colors stemming from the dominant plankton of the day, almost all of which are not only colorful but toxic. Even looking at the satellite view of the South Fork using Google Maps, you don’t have to be a water quality expert to pick out the more polluted ponds from the cleaner ones. The latter are bluer, the former a dirty gray-brown. 

Our inland brackish and fresh waters are going down the drain as well. A recently posted sign at Poxabogue Pond is just another example of what’s happening. It’s posted because its waters are plagued with a huge bloom of blue-green algae or, more correctly, cyanobacteria. Don’t swim in it or drink it? Remember the dog that died a few years ago from drinking the water in Georgica Pond? Each year a new local pond is added to the list of those with cyanobacteria blooms. First it was Mill Pond in Water Mill and Lake Agawam in Southampton Village, then Old Town Pond in Southampton Village, Georgica Pond in Wainscott, Hook Pond in East Hampton Village, Wainscott and Wickapogue Ponds, Kellis Pond in Sagaponack, Sagaponack Pond, and now Poxabogue Pond.

By the same token, a sampling program undertaken by the Surfrider Foundation, which tests the marine waters along both coasts and here on the South Fork in conjunction with Concerned Citizens of Montauk, the Peconic Baykeeper, and other environmental organizations, is producing valuable but very scary data on the levels of a bacterium, enterococcus faecalis. The bacterium comes from the digestive tracts of mammals and other vertebrates and is present in our fresh and estuarine waters. In the past it has been difficult to trace the bacterium to a mammal or waterfowl species, but now the methodology for doing that has been worked out and is in play.

In fact, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County is already doing it in Huntington waters. Don’t be surprised if in the near future we trace some of these bacteria to humans. Those new whiz-bang septic systems that remove nitrogen probably won’t remove entercoccus and fecal coliform bacteria, those bugs that for many years now the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been sampling routinely. When high fecal coliform counts are detected or expected, the D.E.C. closes a water body to shellfishing. 

It’s either one thing, or it’s another. Locally, it’s either a colorful plankton, a cyanobacterium, an enterocccus, or an E. coli. Take your pick. And we are just beginning to look. There may be many other toxic organisms around that we have yet to discover. 

What are we doing to combat all of this pollution? Well, there is that super septic for treating human waste and new catchment basins for catching the pollution in road runoff. There are also shellfishing restrictions and the like to protect us. Lately, filter-feeding oysters show a lot of promise. Clams and mussels also filter the water, but oysters are more tolerant of fresher waters, i.e., brackish waters such as that found in Georgica Pond. 

Oysters can filter-feed out some of the phytoplankton and bacteria, but it may be too little too late. The underground pollution loads from 100 years of septic effluent and the aboveground loads from almost that many years of road and impervious surface runoff will be almost impossible to scrub away, oysters or not. 

Yet we continue to develop willy-nilly, upgradient from coastal waters and freshwater ponds. Take the Hills plan in East Quogue, beside West Shinnecock Bay, which is already terribly polluted, or the spa plan in for Bridgehampton on the banks of Kellis Pond, for starters. These kinds of foolish overdevelopment plans are rife throughout Suffolk County, but the county executive seems to turn a blind eye to them. 

The Ronkonkoma Hub, planned a few hundred feet from Long Island’s largest freshwater lake, mind you, and the redevelopment of the former Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center on oak-brush plains also in the Town of Islip, which is to include 3,500 apartments, are just two of the big developments that come to mind.

While they build, build, build, we are wringing our hands and simultaneously tilting at windmills . . . oh, yes, I almost forgot . . . hundreds of these could be erected in the ocean from Montauk to Far Rockaway and westward to coastal New Jersey, and why not? All of these new developments are going to need a heap of new electrical power. 

As the late Pete Seeger used to lament so painfully in song, “When will we ever learn?” Perhaps never, Pete.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at