Helping the environment by studying Hempstead Bay

Helping the environment by studying Hempstead Bay

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SBU professor R. Lawrence Swanson uses hair conditioners as chemical markers to study sewage

Hair conditioners aren’t just helpful for the heads of Hempstead residents. They also serve as chemical markers for what happens to sewage released through the Bay Park outfall in Reynolds Channel.

That’s just one of a host of findings in an ongoing study of Hempstead sewage that Stony Brook University professor R. Lawrence Swanson is managing. Swanson is leading a group of 10 scientists and three graduate students who are examining the Western Bays in Hempstead to determine what’s happening in the area and to recommend what actions, if any, policy-makers might need to take to protect the region.

While the hair care chemicals, which Stony Brook associate professor Bruce Brownawell is studying, aren’t necessarily damaging to the environment, they do act as markers for the bay.

“Looking at the results of hydrodynamic modeling in conjunction with some of the work that’s been done looking at hair care [products] in sediments has indicated to virtually all of us that the removal of material from the vicinity of the Bay Park outfall is not very good,” Swanson stated. “There’s a lot of sloshing back and forth in the Reynolds Channel.”

Swanson suggested that the choice of the channel in the 1950s probably seemed like a logical one because tidal currents are “quite rapid” twice a day. However, the problem is that “much of that water seems to slosh back and forth, as opposed to exiting.”

Just as the sewage begins to drift east and north away from the bays, the tidal current reverses and pushes it back. Swanson explained. The residence time in Reynolds Channel is between 50 and 240 hours. That means a particle released in the channel would take that long to leave the general area, Swanson said, citing the work of Stony Brook associate professor Robert Wilson.

Additionally, Reynolds Channel and areas to the north are struggling with a “tremendous biomass of sea lettuce,” Swanson observed.

While sea lettuce is common around Long Island, it is so dense in those areas that residents are referring to it as “green bergs.” It accumulates at Point Lookout near the entrance to Jones Inlet to such an extent that the hydrogen sulfide smell is noticeable.

The Hempstead Bays project, which started in September of 2010, runs through March 2013. At the end of it, Swanson and the rest of his team will summarize the results and make recommendations to policy-makers.
As he enters his fourth decade in the environmental sciences at Stony Brook, Swanson indicated he has become increasingly outspoken about the dangers of poor waste management.

“We’re in trouble,” Swanson declared. “We have reached our limit in terms of population growth. In Suffolk County, we are still relying on septic systems that are not the best technology. Many of them are probably not functioning particularly well.”

Swanson said the nitrogen concentration in the Magothy aquifer is about 200 times greater than it was in the 1980s, citing data from the Suffolk County Health Department. The Magothy aquifer is the largest bed of permeable rock that provides water to Long Island.

Still, Swanson isn’t ready to give up on Long Island or on the possibility of improving an environment he said he has thoroughly enjoyed since moving here in 1973.

Swanson lives in Head of the Harbor with his wife, Dana, who is an artist. One son, Michael, lives in St. James, while Larry lives in Seattle, where Dana grew up and where her extended family has lived for four generations.

The Swansons live in a 170-year-old house that was the site of a water bottling business known as the Soper Bottling Works in the late 1800s.

“Every day, the house wakes up and says, ‘What are you going to do for me today?’” laughed Swanson.

Swanson is optimistic that the right programs and approach can improve the environment. He points to the New York Bight, a region between Cape May and Montauk where ocean dumping occurred until around 1990.
Since the cessation of dumping, “You would see a remarkable resilience of the marine environment and its ability to recover, once we stop abusing it.”

Swanson cautions against continued environmental abuse. “An ounce of conservation is worth many pounds of restoration,” he offered.