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Talk Outlines State of the Bays- Sag Harbor Express

By Stephen J. Kotz

The bad news—and there is plenty of it—is that Long Island’s bays, ponds and other surface waters remain under an assault of pollution that threatens their viability. The good news is now that the situation has reached crisis proportions, people are beginning to take notice and think about ways to stave off an environmental calamity.

That was the message Dr. Chris Gobler, the coordinator of Stony Brook Southampton’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, offered in “Crisis and Opportunity,” his annual State of the Bays lecture, on Friday.

Although the lecture broke no new ground, instead offering a detailed overview of current conditions, the annual talk has caught the attention of Southampton Town officials, with representatives of the Trustees and Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst among those in the audience in Chancellors Hall.

Dr. Gobler pointed out that the water, whether it be the ocean, the bays or coastal ponds is what has attracted tourists to the East End for well over a century. “Do we come here for the taxes?” he quipped. “No, we are here for the beauty of the coastal waters.”

Noting that New York State was “historically home to our nation’s greatest shellfisheries,” Dr. Gobler said rich oyster beds were gone by the end of the 19th century, clams were in decline by the mid-1970s, and scallops were decimated starting with arrival of the Brown Tide in the mid-1980s.

Commercial shellfisheries have taken a $6 billion hit since 1985 and eelgrass beds, a key habitat for shellfish, is in danger of being wiped out by 2030.

“We are losing our maritime heritage,” he said. “As my kids grow up they are experiencing a different Long Island than I did.”

A primary culprit is a rise in nitrogen levels, which, he said, has become a major stressor” in bodies of water worldwide. Its source on Long Island is typically from septic systems, which leach effluent into the groundwater and eventually into the bays and ponds, with heavily fertilized lawns another source.

Nitrogen promotes algal blooms, which, in turn use up oxygen in the water, killing fish and shellfish. And the higher the nitrogen levels, the higher the levels of toxins in many forms of algae, he told his audience.

One of those toxic organisms is blue-green algae, which has appeared in Georgica Pond in East Hampton and Lake Agawam in Southampton Village, among other Long Island freshwater ponds. “Where is blue-green algae most common?” Dr. Gobler asked. “You might be surprised to hear the answer is Suffolk County.”

The algae is responsible for the death of a dog, who apparently drank water from Georgica last fall, although the federal Centers for Disease Control is now saying at least 400 dogs have been killed by the toxic algae nationwide, although there is reason to believe the number may be much higher than that.

Blue green algae also made the news last summer when residents of Toledo, Ohio, which gets its water from Lake Erie, were not allowed to use their tap water last summer because of a spike in blue green algae levels.

Elevated nitrogen levels, largely from nitrates leached from septic systems, has found its way to the groundwater and into Long Island’s bays. There, it spurs algal blooms, which, in turn, reduce oxygen levels, killing off fish and shellfish.

“Two-thirds of Long Island’s coastal waters lack enough oxygen for fish to survive,” Dr. Gobler said. Studies have shown that oxygen levels vary, with levels rising during the day when sunlight allows plants to produce oxygen through photosynthesis, with the levels declining at night.

The bays are further damaged by high levels of carbon dioxide in the water, which releases hydrogen ions and turn the water acidic, causing still more harm to plant and animal life.

If it seems bleak, Dr. Gobler told his audience there were some encouraging signs. “We have a governor, a county executive and town supervisors who champion clean water,” he said.

Among the signs of progress he cited is a Suffolk County pilot program that has funded the installation of modern septic systems for 19 different homeowners that could point the way toward reducing nitrate pollution. And he pointed to Stony Brook University’s new Center for Clean Water Technology, which is charged with finding ways to reduce the impacts of pollution from residential septic systems.

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