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Mount Sinai Harbor

As members of the Mount Sinai Yacht Club in Cedar Beach came out June 10 for the 15th annual blessing of the fleet, most understood, as old of a tradition it is, the blessing is time-honored way to guarantee
a successful boating season.

“This is for the entire season to make sure [the club’s members] have a safe and fun boating season,” said Reverend Jerry Nedelka, Venerable Canon for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. He has conducted
the blessing of the fleet ceremony for nearly two decades. “This is a great opportunity for fellowship among friends and club members.”

This year Nedelka and Reverend Francis Lasrado of Infant Jesus R.C. Church in Port Jefferson, held up a cross and gave blessings to the many boats, both large and small, of the yacht club’s members as they crossed in front of the marina. The reverends even blessed the Town of Brookhaven’s pump out boat as it crawled its way across the harbor to the mouth of the Long Island Sound.

The blessing was attended by club trustee Bill Dick along with various local government officials including
Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point).

“This … shows our strong, community-focused mindset,” Dick said.

Anker said the club plays a big park protecting the local harbor front and environment, especially when it comes to the repair of the channel that travels from Mount Sinai Harbor into the Sound, which is constantly affected by erosion and storms.

“They are good stewards of our environment,” Anker said. “They are an anchor in the marina community, and
they have been instrumental in efforts to repair the channel.”

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, shows how newly state-mandated terrapin excluder devices keep turtles out while crabs can still get in. Photo by Kyle Barr

It has been a slow crawl saving Long Island’s turtles, but local conservation groups are hoping new state regulations will speed up the process.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Long Island environmental groups gathered May 23 at the Suffolk County Environmental Center in Islip to celebrate new rules requiring crab cages — used in Long Island’s coastal waters including many of the bays, harbors and rivers that enter Long Island Sound — to have “terrapin excluder devices” (TEDs) on all entrances. As carnivores, terrapins are attracted to bait fish used in commercial, or what’s known as Maryland style crab traps or “pots.” As a result, male and female turtles of all sizes push their way through the entrance funnels and end up drowning.

John Turner, a conservation policy advocate for the Seatuck Environmental Association, shows the North Shore areas where turtles are getting caught and drowning in crab cages. Photo by Kyle Barr

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning,” said John Turner, conservation policy advocate for Seatuck Environmental Association, which operates the Islip center. “To me, one of the signs of a real civilized society is how we treat other life-forms. We haven’t treated terrapins very well.”

He said in Stony Brook Harbor alone there are dozens, maybe hundreds of terrapins that will spend the winter in the mud, emerging once the water runs up high enough. Turner said many of the North Shore areas that are home to these turtles, like Setauket Harbor, Conscience Bay, Port Jefferson Harbor, Mount Sinai Harbor and Nissequogue River, play a key role in preserving the species.

“In contrast to where I am in South Jersey, I can go by the canals and I can see a dozen [terrapin] heads bobbing up and down,” said James Gilmore, director of the marine resources division at the state DEC. “Here, it’s very rare to see one. Hopefully these new rules will help us see more.”

Gilmore said the DEC began working on changing state regulations in 2013 but have known long before there was a problem.

Carl LoBue, The Nature Conservancy’s New York ocean program director, said it was in the late 1990s he’d witnessed recreational crab traps in Stony Brook Harbor. One day he lifted a cage out of the water while trying to move his landlord’s boat and saw it was filled with trapped terrapins. Two were still alive, but five
had already drowned.

“With each and every season these traps are not required to have TEDs, there are likely hundreds of terrapins that are drowning.”

— John Turner

“I’m sure the crabber wasn’t intent to kill turtles,” LoBue said. “But when I looked across the bay at the 60 or something crab traps this person had set, I was crushed thinking of the terrapins drowning at that very moment.”

In the early 2000s terrapins became a popular meal in New York, but the harvest of those turtles led to a massive decrease in population, especially the diamondback terrapin, which was identified as a species of greatest conservation need in the 2015 New York State Wildlife Action Plan. In September 2017 the DEC passed regulations banning the commercial harvest of diamondbacks.

Terrapin population has slowly increased since then, but researchers say there’s still little known about the population, like life expectancy or habits while in water. The species has a very slow birth rate, with low local clutches of 10 or so eggs — sometimes only one or two of which hatch and mature. 

Russell Burke, a professor of biology at Hofstra University, said terrapins could live very long lives, pointing to older specimens he has seen living to 60 years old, but he estimated some could be twice that age. While Burke said it’s hard to estimate the total population on Long Island, he said in Jamaica Bay alone, he knows there are approximately 3,500 adult females.

Terrapin, or turtles, are carnivores, attracted to fish typically used to catch crab. Photo by Kyle Barr

The TED devices are 4 3/4 inches by 1 3/4 inches, an exact measurement, to ensure that while crabs can get through, turtles cannot. According to Kim McKown, leader of the Marine Invertebrate and Protected Resources Unit at the state DEC, the small, plastic TEDs cost $10 for the three needed to secure a normal crab trap. The cost exponentially increases depending on how many traps a fisherman has, with some owning up to 1,000 traps.

Turner said his organization used its own funds and purchased 5,000 TEDs and gifted them to the DEC. The state agency is giving them to Long Island crab fishermen on a first come, first served basis.

Commercial crab fisherman Fred Chiofolo, who hunts in Brookhaven Town along the South Shore, experimented with TEDs on his own for years before the regulations were passed. He said the devices
even improved the number of crabs caught.

“It made a significant difference with the pots that had them versus the pots that didn’t,” Chiofolo said. “Last year I put them in every pot I had — about 200 of them. I’m not going to lie it’s a lot of work to put them in, but we don’t want to catch the turtle. I don’t want them, and [the TED] does keep them out.”

PRETTY IN PINK Elisa Hendrey of Sound Beach captured this stunning image on her iPhone on Sept. 28. She writes, “This photo was taken at sunset at Mount Sinai Harbor, one of my favorite spots for viewing the setting sun.”

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

PARTY OF SEVEN Jane Edsall spotted this family of mute swans swimming in Mount Sinai Harbor two weeks ago. She writes, “I am a resident of Mount Sinai and have enjoyed the harbor and its wildlife my whole life.” Brought to this country from Europe in the mid-1800s to adorn city parks and large estates, mute swans are known to mate for life. The cygnets will stay with their parents through the first winter.

Send your Photo of the Week to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com.

Mount Sinai Harbor. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Suffolk County Police officers and firefighters from the Mount Sinai Fire Department rescued three hunters after their boat capsized in Mount Sinai Harbor the morning of Jan. 22.

James Knipe and his son, also named James, along with Kendrick Pisano, were duck hunting in a boat in Mount Sinai Harbor when their vessel took on water and overturned. After the three entered the water, they clung to the overturned boat and the elder Knipe, 47, called 911 on his cell phone.

Suffolk Police notified the United States Coast Guard and the Mount Sinai Fire Department. When Sixth Precinct officers arrived on scene, they observed all three clinging to the overturned boat and holding onto life jackets. Members of the Mount Sinai Fire Department launched an inflatable vessel and rescued the younger Knipe, 17, and Pisano, 16, from the water. Suffolk Police Marine Bureau Officers John Castorf and Christopher DeFeo, aboard Marine November, pulled James Knipe from the water.

All three victims were brought to the boat ramp and transported to local hospitals for treatment of exposure and hypothermia. Pisano, of Miller Place, was taken to John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson and the Knipes, of Middle Island, were transported to Stony Brook University Hospital.

Marine Bureau officers recovered and secured the vessel, the victims’ belongings and three shotguns from the harbor.

The water temperature at the time of the incident was approximately 45 degrees. The Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau reminds boaters and hunters that New York State Law requires that personal flotation devices be worn at all times on vessels less than 21 feet in length, from November 1 to May 1.

The Mount Sinai Harbor, above, will undergo jetty reconstruction to make navigation easier and bring back winter shellfishing. File photo by Erika Karp

The Town of Brookhaven stands stronger than ever in the midst of a major economic lag in Suffolk County as it enters the new year.

During the final Brookhaven town board meeting of last year, on Dec. 15, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced several large bond resolutions, including one for $4.5 million to pay for the dredging and restoration of Lily Lake in Yaphank and another for $12.3 million to pay for the resurfacing of various town-owned roads. These bonds will help move forward the long-term capital projects within his approved budget for 2017 — to the concern of some residents in attendance unsure as to why so much money was being proposed all at once.

The projects will be made possible with the help of bonds secured by the Town of Brookhaven, which Supervisor Ed Romaine helped secure. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

But the supervisor insists that taxpayers in Brookhaven have nothing to worry about in terms of fiscal spending.

“This is no different than what we’ve done every other year,” Romaine explained in a phone interview. “Each year, we have to authorize bond resolutions, have to go to bond counsel, and then float the bond [into the bond market] because long-term assets are what you borrow for. We need the money in 2017 and we want to get a head start on that.”

In fact, he said, Brookhaven’s borrowing in terms of bonding out is down and the township pays off its bonds well before their maturity dates in most cases.

“We don’t spend money we don’t have,” Romaine said. “When we go to bond, we go to bond very cautiously, we try to pay off our bonds very quickly, and we don’t believe in taking on too much debt.”

For instance, Romaine said, Brookhaven is the only town in all of Long Island that has paid off all of its pension debt.

“We have reserve funds for when the town landfill is closed, [as well as] a snow reserve fund of up to $2 million on top of the $6 million budgeted for snow in case we get a really heavy year,” he said.

While most every municipality in Suffolk County struggles with tremendous debt, Brookhaven has been prosperous. Standard and Poor’s Financial Services assigned its AAA credit rating to the town, the highest designation issued by the New York City-based agency. The AAA rating means Brookhaven has been recognized as having strong capacity to meet financial commitments.

It was its top-tier credit rating that allowed Brookhaven to acquire so much money for capital projects and low interest rates.

“When we go to bond, we go to bond very cautiously, we try to pay off our bonds very quickly, and we don’t believe in taking on too much debt.”

—Ed Romaine

“Where a lot of Suffolk County has been downgraded, we’re the largest town in Suffolk County and we’re getting upgraded to the highest level possible, and I think that speaks to the supervisor’s leadership and fiscal discipline,” Department of Waste Management Commissioner Matt Miner said. “We’re close to reducing [more than] $30 million in pipeline debt … and on the operating budget, he’s been very disciplined in how to spend taxpayer money, and we’re complying with the New York State property tax cap. We’re one of the few municipalities to do so.”

As for the planned projects described in the bond resolutions, Romaine said the ones most important and expensive for the North Shore will be revitalizing Lily Lake to get rid of invasive weeds and restore it back as a recreational haven, reconstructing the jetties in Mount Sinai Harbor to make boat navigation easier and help bring back shellfishing in the winter and continuing to work with the highway department to improve and pave roads.

Other resolutions included the issuance of $2.5 million to pay the cost of various original improvements to the town landfill, including, but not limited to, gas management, odor control and leachate control improvements and $600,000 to pay the cost of acquisition and installation of various equipment for use at town facilities.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato at the Mount Sinai Civic Association's 100th anniversary dinner. File photo by Desirée Keegan

In October, the Mount Sinai Civic Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and further cemented its role in providing the look, helping with the maintenance and ensuring the overall quality of life of the community. Considering its century-long list of accomplishments, the civic association is still going strong.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community,” Mount Sinai Civic Association Vice President Brad Arrington, a member since 2004, said. “It’s a mechanism to have an input in the future of my community and a place I plan to stay in for quite a long time.”

For their tireless efforts and infinite contributions, the more than 180 members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association have been recognized as Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community.”

— Brad Arrington

Made up of volunteers, the organization has been, and continues to be, built on local residents stepping forward and having a voice in shaping the place in which they live.

It all began on Oct. 5, 1916, when the civic association was founded as an offshoot of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association for the main purposes of obtaining better roads, improving conditions in Mount Sinai Harbor and figuring out ways to protect against fires, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Mount Sinai Volunteer Fire Department standing today.

The original officers elected at the first organizational meeting were Jacob Schratweiser, president; Philip C. Scherer, first vice president; William R. P. Van Pelt, secretary and Lorenzo H. Davis, treasurer.

They paved the way for decades’ worth of major civic issues that include successfully stopping the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor in the 1960s, suing Brookhaven for overdevelopment to reduce the number of housing units built in 1996 and working with state, county and town officials to purchase and preserve “The Wedge” property as Heritage Park. Developers initially planned to construct a Home Depot where the park is today.

Members of the civic association work toward improving their community, protecting its coastal environment and, perhaps most importantly, protesting against overdevelopment to keep their hamlet quaint and suburban.

“We want to [continue] protecting the open space Mount Sinai has,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “The woodlands, beach areas … preventing overdevelopment is [crucial] because that can also have negative impacts on taxes, quality of life and even things like crime.”

Becker, an active member since 1984, said she joined the organization because of the direct impact its work had on quality of life and families in the area.

Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker at a recent meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

What initially prompted her involvement was the proposal for a giant commercial shopping center on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Canal Road, right behind her home, which would have been inconsistent with the aesthetic of the primarily residential neighborhood. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of support for the planned development, and so the public — through the civic association — rallied against it and the shopping center never came to be.

Becker said the civic association is always on the lookout for problems and concerns residents might have with the ultimate goal of working on behalf of everyone to reach the best possible outcome and make a difference.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), whose office is currently working closely with the civic on two developmental projects, called Becker “a force to be reckoned with.”

“She’s exactly what a civic leader needs to be,” the councilwoman said. “The Mount Sinai community is very fortunate that Ann and the group continue to step up to the plate. They are a great group of volunteers and it’s an honor and a privilege to work with them.”

Fred Drewes, one of the civic’s long-serving members, joined in 1970, feeling it was important to be an active participant in the community and give constructive suggestions to help develop the quality of it.

Drewes, with the help of fellow civic member Lori Baldassare, projected his vision of a “central” park to help bring people together and have a location for community activities. It didn’t take long before the civic purchased the almost-a-Home Depot parcel and developed Drewes’ “Ivory Tower” idea.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the development of our hamlet,” he said, “has benefited from the input of members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The Mount Sinai Civic Association isn’t just a local organization — it’s an institution that has become part of the community’s fabric for the last 100 years.

On Oct. 6 at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club, the civic association celebrated its anniversary with its board, community members and local politicians.

Heritage Trust secretary Thomas Carbone speaks during the dinner. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Heritage Trust secretary Thomas Carbone speaks during the dinner. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“It’s an amazing milestone,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “We’re impressed with how dedicated people have been, always stepping up in Mount Sinai. It’s been a concerted effort. We’ve had strong leadership. It’s a community that pulls together when there are problems and tries to resolve those issues.”

Incorporated Oct. 5, 1916, as an outgrowth of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association, its initial objective was to construct better roads, improve the conditions of Mount Sinai Harbor and adopt means to protect against fires.

“Over 100 years, some of those principles remain,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said. “The civic works hard to protect this community, to ensure that the zoning, the look of this community stays as a majority of the people in this community wants it to. They work hard to protect the harbor, the environment, and they do a tremendous job.”

Over its history, the civic association has worked tirelessly on quality of life issues for the residents of Mount Sinai and Brookhaven Town. It worked to protect the area’s coastal environment, establish community parks and preserves and maintain a balanced level of development — including recreational facilities, privately owned housing, residential opportunities for seniors and support for schools. A completely volunteer-based organization, the civic has always depended on local residents to step forward and actively work toward improving the community, protecting the environment and protesting against overdevelopment.

With Becker now at the helm, the civic association continues to strive to better the community, and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Becker is perfect for the job.

“Ann and her civic board are wonderful advocates for the tiny little hamlet of Mount Sinai,” she said, adding that her husband, John Sandusky, was born and raised in the area. “People like Ann, and others in this community, keep a watchful eye, are paying attention and have the best goals for Mount Sinai — to maintain its quaint look and charm.”

“Change never ends, nor does the desire to keep the place you call home special. I think the small things are the real success.”

— Lori Baldassare

During the 1960s and ’70s, the major civic issues included working to successfully stop the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor, which was accomplished in the late 1960s, followed by the planning and management of Cedar Beach.

With a grant received from New York State with the help of Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), 355 trees were planted along Route 25A the same year to beautify the community.

“The work that they do in the community and the difference that they make in the quality of life in Mount Sinai; the civic sets an example for all other communities,” Englebright said. “This is a shining beacon of civic activism and accomplishment. The association has continuity, initiative and history. I go to other hamlets in my district and I tell them to visit Mount Sinai and its park to see what a hamlet and a community can do when it comes together.”

The grant was also used to help purchase the nearly one-acre property that is known as Heritage Park. Preventing the sale of “The Wedge” to developers who planned to construct a Home Depot was also made possible with the help of Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who persuaded the owner to donate the balance of the property.

In the 1990s, the civic started many of the community activities still supported through the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Heritage Trust Inc., though many have since expanded.

Honored at the anniversary ceremony were Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato, who were and are all still involved in Heritage Trust and Heritage Park.

Baldassare, eight-year president of the Heritage Trust, is a founding director who has also been a civic member for decades.

The centennial cake. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The centennial cake. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I do not think that anyone thinks that they are signing on for 20 years or more, it just happens one small project at a time,” she said. “Change never ends, nor does the desire to keep the place you call home special. I think the small things are the real success — planting trees along 25A, placing welcome signs, constructing an ambulance building to serve the community, start a Christmas Tree lighting event, influencing the aesthetics and naming for the Heritage Diner, and so much more. There is always just one more thing to do and I am so proud to live in a place that has a real sense of community.”

For Drewes, who landscaped Heritage Park, which Baldassare referred to as a community treasure, the evening turned out different than he’d envisioned.

“I thought the evening would focus on recognizing and celebrating 100 years of community work of the Mount Sinai Civic Association,” he said. “I felt thankful and honored to be recognized as part of the history of the civic association’s efforts to develop into a hamlet we could be proud to live in.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the hamlet needs to keep up the good work, making sure that the residents protect each other and address the worries and concerns of the community.

“We have to keep up the inspiration,” she said. “There’s so much more that we can do, but what’s most important it that we take care of what we have.”

Mount Sinai Harbor. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Councilwoman Jane Bonner is getting by with a little help from a friend.

Bonner (C-Rocky Point) has aided the Town of Brookhaven to begin a long overdue jetty reconstruction project in Mount Sinai Harbor. She, along with Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and others on the town board, helped secure $5.6 million in town funding to go toward rebuilding the east and west jetties at the mouth of the harbor. The project will increase boater safety making navigation easier and could allow dredging that will bring back the winter shell-fishing season.

The issue has been a top priority for Bonner since 2010, when her office commissioned a study along with the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the need for improvements to the jetties, she said during a press conference Sept. 19 at Mount Sinai Yacht Club.

At the time, rocks had collapsed, submerging the seaward ends of the jetties at high tide, and the elevation of the jetty stones above the water at high tide was less than four feet in some places. Bonner and Romaine saw a more pressing need to address the problem after Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy and other storms caused further damage, though they weren’t able to secure enough funding to complete the project until this year.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner thanks state Sen. Ken LaValle for helping to secure $3 million in funding to rebuild jetties in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Councilwoman Jane Bonner thanks state Sen. Ken LaValle for helping to secure $3 million in funding to rebuild jetties in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Bonner reached out to state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to see if his department could kick in some additional funds to help the town reach the $10 million budget needed to complete the project.

Initially, LaValle offered Bonner $1 million.

“I was not shy, I was not embarrassed to tell him it wasn’t good enough and that we needed more money,” she said. “He actually called me at home to let me know. His first words were, ‘How’s $3 million, is that enough?’ And I said, ‘It’ll have to do Senator,’ so thank you from the bottom of my heart.’”

LaValle helped secure an extra $2 million with the help of senate majority leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

“From day one I’ve always had as my mantra that local control was very, very important,” LaValle said. “It is nothing but a pleasure working with Supervisor Romaine and [Councilwoman Bonner], who is always looking out for her council district, and always says, ‘Senator, I could use your help.’ It’s working with the localities to identify the problems, and make it a priority. That’s how we started with $1 million and ended up with $3 million to get this done.”

Reconstructing the jetties, according to Bonner, is critical for thousands of residents who utilize Mount Sinai Harbor for recreational and commercial reasons.

“This peninsula is not just a yacht club — we have working boatyards, we have recreational fisherman, we have fishermen and women that derive their income from this harbor,” Bonner said standing on the porch of the club. “This is truly a hub — it’s a working harbor and we are very fortunate and very blessed to be surrounded by so many people that will benefit from this project being done.”

John Howell, commodore for the Mount Sinai Yacht Club, said he has witnessed how dangerous the waters have been first hand.

“This is truly a hub — it’s a working harbor and we are very fortunate and very blessed to be surrounded by so many people that will benefit from this project being done.”

—Jane Bonner

He said he’s boated through Hell Gate, a narrow tidal straight in the East River that has the reputation of being unsafe, and said even that doesn’t compare to his harbor.

“I’ve been through Hell Gate many times through many conditions, and I can attest that our little entrance here is worse than Hell Gate,” he said.

The undertaking will help improve boater safety, as there is a large sand bar that extends deep through the middle of the channel that boats get stuck on, but according to Romaine, as part of replacing the jetties, Suffolk County has agreed to also do interface dredging at the mouth of the harbor once the jetty has been rebuilt and stabilized. As a result, winter shell fishing could resume. The harbor was closed for shell fishing for the first time last winter.

The Town of Brookhaven is hoping for added assistance from the neighboring Village of Port Jefferson, which will directly benefit from the project.

According to Romaine, the east jetty is collapsing and creating an erosion problem at Port Jefferson Village Beach. Brookhaven Town is the only municipality in charge of a jetty. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains all other jetties on Long Island but the Mount Sinai Harbor’s. While the town has always budgeted the $5.6 million, it could never get the rest of the funding needed, so now with LaValle’s contribution, Bonner said she hopes Port Jefferson Village will “step up to the plate with the difference” because the area would “benefit greatly from these two jetties.”

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant did not respond to requests for comment.

Ralph Davenport, from Ralph’s Fishing Station & Marina in Mount Sinai, said he is excited to hear the harbor will be a safer place for recreational and commercial boaters.

“If you were a person who didn’t know this harbor and were looking for a safe place to come in, odds are that you would crash on the way in,” he said. “Big boats used to be able to come in and out of this harbor years ago, with no problem at all, and now it’s a hazard. It used to be the easiest harbor on the North Shore to navigate in, and now it’s one of the worst. So hopefully next year’s time we’ll dig the sandbar out of the way enough where the people can navigate safely again.”

Algae built up on a lake where birds and other marina life inhabit. File photo

By Rebecca Anzel

Long Island’s economic prosperity and quality of life are at risk from an unlikely source, but both the Suffolk County and Town of Brookhaven governments are taking steps to combat the issue.

Bodies of water in the county face nitrogen pollution, which leads to harmful algae blooms and a decrease in shellfish population, among other environmental defects. Critically, nitrogen seeps into the Island’s groundwater, which is the region’s only source of drinking water.

Fishing, tourism and boating are billion-dollar industries in Suffolk County — approximately 60 percent of the Island’s economy is reliant on clean water. County property values are also tied to water clarity, according to a Stony Brook University report.

Nitrogen enters ground and surface water from various sources of runoff, such as landscaping, agriculture and pet waste. But the largest contributor of nitrogen pollution is failing septic systems, which County Executive Steve Bellone (D) designated as “public water enemy No. 1.”

Elected officials and environmental advocates gathered at the home of Jim and Donna Minei, recipients of a Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems through the Suffolk County Septic Demonstration Pilot Program. Photo from Steve Bellone's office
Elected officials and environmental advocates gathered at the home of Jim and Donna Minei, recipients of a Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems through the Suffolk County Septic Demonstration Pilot Program. Photo from Steve Bellone’s office

Which is why Bellone signed into law last month a resolution that amended Suffolk County’s sanitary code to help protect the county’s aquifer and surface water by improving wastewater treatment technologies to combat nitrogen pollution as part of the county’s Reclaim Our Water initiative.

“It doesn’t help our tourism industry, our quality of life or our ecosystems,” county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said of issues with the Island’s water. “Tackling the nitrogen problem, while not a sexy issue, is a very important one.” Hahn is chairwoman of the county’s Environment, Planning & Agriculture Committee.

Town and county officials are tackling the problem by utilizing what Hahn called a “multipronged approach.” Brookhaven is working to track any issues with outfalls, where drains and sewers empty into local waters, and Suffolk County is employing alternative septic systems.

Municipalities like Brookhaven are required by New York State to inspect each point where waste systems empty into a body of water and create a map of their location. It is part of a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit because, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, storm sewers collect pollutants like bacteria, motor oil, fertilizer, heavy metals and litter, and deposit them directly into bodies of water.

In addition to conducting the inspections of outfalls necessary to comply with the MS4 permit, the Town of Brookhaven conducts a DNA analysis of any outfall that has indications of impacting water quality. Since 2007, Brookhaven has spent more than $880,000 on this state requirement, Veronica King, the town’s stormwater manager, said.

“You want to put your resources where it makes the most sense,” she said. “Instead of dumping millions of dollars into structural retrofits that don’t address the true problem, the DNA analysis helps us to prioritize and make educated and cost-effective decisions.”

Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said Brookhaven contracts with Cornell Cooperative Extension because it maintains a DNA “library” of Long Island wildlife, which it uses to identify the source of any pathogens in collected stormwater. For instance, if the DNA tests conclude they came from pets, Brookhaven might conduct an educational campaign to remind residents to clean up after their furry friends. If the pathogens come from a human source, there might be an issue with a septic system.

“This type of analysis could prove of great importance because any patterns identified as a result of this study can help determine what next steps can be taken to improve water quality where necessary,” Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said.

Brookhaven has applied for a state grant to help pay for these DNA tests and outfall inspections for the first time this year, because, King said, this is the first time New York State has offered a grant to cover the work.

The DNA tests are important, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said, because they help to identify ways to decrease the amount of nitrogen seeping into groundwater.

“The amount of nitrogen in the Magothy aquifer layer has increased over 200 percent in 13 years,” he said of one of the sub-layers that is most commonly tapped into in Suffolk, although not the deepest in the aquifer. “Cleaning up our waterways is not going to be done overnight — this is going to take a long time — but the waterways did not become polluted overnight.”

Suffolk County launched its Septic Demonstration Program to install cesspool alternative systems in 2014, called Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (known as I/A OWTS), on the property of participants. Manufacturers of the technology donated the systems and installed them at no cost to the homeowner.

The county’s goal in testing these alternative systems is to lower the levels of nitrogen seeping into groundwater. According to a June 2016 Stony Brook University report, “the approximately 360,000 septic tank/leaching systems and cesspools that serve 74 percent of homes across Suffolk County have caused the concentrations of nitrogen in groundwater to rise by 50 percent since 1985.”

More than 10,000 of the nitrogen-reducing systems are installed in New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — all areas with similar environmental concerns to Suffolk County — according to the county executive’s office. County employees met with officials from these states to help shape its program.

“Tackling the nitrogen problem, while not a sexy issue, is a very important one.”

—Kara Hahn

The I/A OWTS installations worked out so well during a demonstration program that on July 26, the county passed a resolution to allow the Department of Health Services to regulate their use.

Typical cesspools are estimated to cost between $5,000 and $7,000 to install. The low nitrogen systems cost between $12,000 and $20,000, Hahn said. She added that as more areas facing similar environmental concerns require lower nitrogen standards and, as the technology improves, the cost of cesspool alternatives will go down.

Until then, Hahn said county officials have been discussing the possibility of subsidizing the cost of installing the I/A OWTS. It might begin requiring new homes to install low-nitrogen systems instead of traditional cesspools. Or, upon an old system’s failure, it might require an I/A OWTS be installed.

“We hope to eventually be able to help in some way,” she said.

County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she hopes local businesses begin producing the alternative systems that the county determines best work for the area since it would “keep the economic dollar here” and provide jobs.

In January, Brookhaven will be the first town, Romaine said, that will begin mandating new constructions within 500 feet of any waterway to install an alternative wastewater treatment system.

“I think alternative systems work,” he said. “In many ways, even though we’re a local government, we are on the cutting edge of clean water technologies.”

Both the initiatives by Brookhaven and Suffolk County “go hand and glove,” George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said. Many of Suffolk’s harbors and bays are struggling due to stormwater and nitrogen pollution, including Great South Bay, Lake Ronkonkoma, Northport Harbor, Forge River, Port Jefferson Harbor, Mount Sinai Harbor and Peconic River/Peconic Bay.

“Living on an island on top of our water supply and with thousands of homes along the shores of our harbors and bays, it never made sense to allow cesspools to proliferate,” he said.

The success of the initiatives, though, depends on residents.

“The public needs to be always recognizing that whatever we do on land here on Long Island and in Suffolk County affects not only the drinking water beneath us but the quality of our bays and waterways, streams and rivers all around us,” Hahn said. “It’s critically important that folks have that understanding. Everything we do on land affects our water here on the Island.”

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