Come in, the Water’s Mostly Fine

Bacteria counts at ocean lower than at other spots
Bacteria were not found at all on the harbor-side of Lake Montauk in 2017, but were found in large quantities on the inland side. Alex Lemonides

The Surfrider Foundation, in conjunction with Concerned Citizens of Montauk and the Peconic Baykeeper, has found the quality of the water at South Fork ocean beaches to be just fine. An annual report also noted that Napeague Harbor in Amagansett and several parts of Long Island Sound have never been observed as unsafe for swimming. 

In a summary of data from 2017, the groups identified patterns of enterococcus bacteria, a bacterium found in the guts of red-blooded animals like ducks, dogs, and humans. Its presence is evidence of fecal contamination because it doesn’t normally come from other sources. 

  The report confirmed that open water or water that moves consistently displays lower levels of the bacteria than water in still ponds and lakes. The data also show low levels of enterococcus during the winter and dry seasons. 

 Ditch Plain in Montauk is a slight outlier in terms of fecal contamination, however. Of 29 samples collected in 2017, 7 percent exceeded safe levels. 

At Three Mile Harbor, 3 of the 15 samples taken in 2017 were found to contain unsafe levels. One fifth of the samples collected at Settlers Landing,  off Three Mile Harbor, exceeded healthy levels and almost a third of samples collected at Lake Montauk were found to be unsafe. Fresh Pond in Amagansett contained unhealthy levels of bacteria in 29 percent of samples. 

At Georgica Pond, of 25 samples, 20 percent of those taken near Montauk Highway were unsafe and 24 percent of those taken near Georgica and Cove Hollow Roads in East  Hampton Village were unsafe. 

Water samples are collected weekly during the summer, biweekly in the fall and spring, and monthly during the winter. Samples are collected by volunteers and, in East Hampton, are taken to a lab at the office of Concerned Citizens of Montauk or, in Southampton, to Chris Gobler’s lab at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. 

At Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, where recent water-flow improvements have been completed, only a 3 percent occurrence of contamination was recorded in 29 samples in 2017.

A few other locations in Southampton Town also frequently displayed higher than healthy levels of the bacteria, including Sagaponack Pond, where 41 percent of samples were cited as unsafe, Mecox Bay, with 26 percent of samples deemed unhealthy, and Circle Beach, off Noyac Road, with unhealthy results in 25 percent of samples taken from the estuary and 22 percent of those from the bay beach. 

The report also identified a seasonal nature to the data. Fecal contamination in most ponds and waterways is generally a problem in the summer, which means it is probably related to the biggest seasonal migration of all: the flock of humans that alight on the East End on Memorial Day and stay until Labor Day. 

“You would normally expect higher levels during the summer, because of the warmer water temperature, but with levels this high you get into fecal contamination, either by humans or waterfowl,” Kevin McAllister, the founder of DefendH2O, a nonprofit organization, said. He said the seasonal migration of ducks and geese could be responsible for some seasonal fluctuations, but “most of the waterfowl around here don’t migrate anymore. Like the Canada geese, they used to go south for the winter, now they just hang out here.” 

Mr. McAllister identified the likely culprit in the elevated enterococcus counts as residential septic systems. “The water table has risen four inches in the past 20 years, and when the groundwater comes up to the septic tanks, the bacteria can’t be filtered out by the soil.” 

Septic systems gradually leech their contents into the ground, but it is not a problem as long as they are surrounded by dry soil and rocks that filter out harmful bacteria, including enterococcus. East Hampton and Southampton Towns have begun requiring new residential construction to install modern systems and there also are some rebate programs for upgrades.

Stormwater runoff can cause problems with enterococcus because it brings the water table higher. The Surfrider-C.C.O.M. report identified this as the reason water quality was so bad following Hurricane Jose. The problem is likely to get worse, according to Mr. McAllister, who said that the next 40 years will cause the water table to rise between 11 and 40 inches. 

Sewage leaking into the bays, ponds, and lakes is a problem even if nobody swims there, because it essentially makes those bodies high-capacity cesspools. The Environmental Protection Agency banned large-capacity cesspools in 2002. Much of the South Fork’s drinking water comes from Suffolk County wells, which get the water from the aquifer, which is far below the groundwater, but if the groundwater gets too contaminated, the bacteria could seep into the aquifer.

Kim Shaw, the director of natural resources for East Hampton Town, said that work has begun to investigate the underground pipes that discharge stormwater into Georgica Pond at Cove Hollow to determine a way to address high bacteria counts. 

Efforts are also underway by the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, in conjunction with the town and the State Department of Transportation, to reduce the amount of stormwater, nutrients, and bacteria entering Georgica Pond at the kayak launch and rest area on Route 27. 

Additionally, Dr. Gobler’s lab is investigating the bacteria in Georgica Pond using cutting-edge DNA source tracking. The Surfrider Foundation partnered with the Village of East Hampton and the Ladies Village Improvement Society in 2017 to plant a bioswale of native plants in the East Hampton Village Green that absorbs and filters road runoff before it flows into Town Pond, Hook Pond, and from there to the ocean. 

C.C.O.M. has also worked with the town to fund a United States Geological Survey microbial source tracking program that will help identify the sources of pollution.

To limit exposure to potentially disease-causing bacteria, the report recommends swimming at ocean or bay beaches where lifeguards are on duty, not swimming 24 to 48 hours after heavy rain, keeping kids and pets out of streams and runoff, not entering water where algae bloom signs are posted, and rinsing with fresh water before eating or leaving the beach. The full report can be found online.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, swimming in water with more than 104 colony-producing units per 100 milliliters of water can lead to health problems like urinary tract infections, endocarditis, bacteremia, wound infections, intra-abdominal and pelvic infections, gastrointestinal illness, rashes, and eye and ear infections. Enterococcus is usually found after severe rains, when runoff carries contaminants from sidewalks and roofs into the water.

Editor's Note:

A paragraph in this story regarding Kim Shaw, the director of Natural Resources for the Town of East Hampton, and her views about the water testing has been removed while its accuracy is being rechecked. Ms. Shaw and several others have described the statements in that paragraph, including a quotation apparently attributed to her in error, as false.