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NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

Above, a view of Conscience Bay from the shoreline of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

By John Turner

One of the great joys of living in the Three Village area are the plethora of parks and preserves to be explored and enjoyed. These public spaces, true community assets, include the Frank Melville Memorial Park/Three Village Garden Club complex and Lee Koppelman Nature Preserve in Setauket; Patriots Hollow State Forest in East Setauket;  and Forsythe Meadows County Park, the Town of Brookhaven’s West Meadow Beach, and the rambling, privately owned Avalon Preserve in Stony Brook. 

We can now add another public property to the list to be savored: the small (7 acres) but beautiful state-owned property at the entrance to Strongs Neck. Offering commanding views of the eastern shore of Conscience Bay, it was purchased on our behalf by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation last summer.  

Above, a small salt pond surrounded by a tidal wetland fragment in the middle of the Besunder property. Photo by John Turner

The entrance to the preserve is through a split rail fence along North Road. Here you’ll see the rock placed to recognize the contribution of the Besunder family who sold the property to the state. The trail passes by the plaqued rock and a small coastal salt pond on the right that is connected to the bay through a series of ditches in the salt marsh. Here I recently watched a great blue heron hunt for fish with zen-like patience, remaining perfectly still for minutes on end, lest it give away its presence due to some detectable movement. 

The red cedars, along with pitch pine, the two more common coniferous trees native to Long Island, form thick stands throughout the property, growing in areas that are a few feet above the elevations of the surrounding marshland and only a few more feet above the high tide levels of Conscience Bay.   

Thinking about the low-lying condition of this coastal forest caused a strong feeling of melancholy to usher over me, for I knew this forest, consisting of many hundreds of trees, will not likely survive more than two or three decades more. The cause for its ultimate demise? Elevated coastal waters due to sea level rise fueled by global warming. 

In New York, sea levels are projected to rise, under the most optimistic conditions, 8 inches by the 2050s and, if the worse occurs, by 30 inches in the same period. Since 1900 they have already risen a foot due to the warming of ocean water with 8 inches of this rise having occurred over the past 50 years, indicating this rise is accelerating. 

Given these projections, it is a certainty the property will lose its forests and very likely evolve into a salt marsh or into open water if the sea levels continue to rise. If this happens Strongs Neck will become “Strongs Island” and dozens of homes and businesses in the Three Village area will no longer be inhabitable. 

The culprit for this unwanted change? Our stubborn refusal to enact the needed policies to limit carbon emissions by the amounts necessary and at a pace that’s rapid enough and a refusal colored by some “leaders” who still throw out the canard that global climate change is a myth. 

Well, the best science is telling us that this “myth” is an incontrovertible “reality wall” that we will, with certainty, drive into with devastating consequences for us humans and the other living forms that share our planet — if we do not, very soon, begin to change course.    

Soon I came out to the shore and my spirits brightened considerably, bathed as I was in this beautiful coastal scene of a gentle and sheltered harbor. Small wavelets lapped on the shoreline. Plus, seeing birds always helps the mood. 

An adult male bufflehead. Photo by Luke Ormand

Along a distant shoreline a snow white American egret flew along, presumably heading to or from a feeding episode, and 150 yards from where I stood on the shore was a loose flock of buffleheads, a duck that is the definition of cuteness. The males are distinctive with their uniquely patterned heads — heads dominated by a white patch such that, if the duck’s head was a clock face, it would be white from 9 to 11 o’clock. The rest of the “clock” is dark and flashes iridescence from green to purple depending on the angle to the sun. 

Flocks of buffleheads often dive synchronously leading to a “now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t” phenomenon as they dive below the surface to feed, before bobbing like released corks back to the surface. Where there were no ducks two seconds before, suddenly half a dozen are floating on the surface together. 

Small as ducks go, their heads are large and that explains their common name. They were once called buffaloheads — shortened to buffleheads — since their heads were disproportionately large, just like the American buffalo (more accurately the American bison). 

Buffleheads grace our coastal waters during the winter months.       

As I walked out of the preserve and past the rock, I read the plaque and under my breath said, “Kudos to the Besunder family for committing to conservation and to the DEC for helping them to fulfill that commitment.” The images of buffleheads disappearing and re-emerging in the frigid waters of Conscience Bay, cavorting unconcerned about the elements, snug as they are in their feathered garb, stayed with me for the ride home. 

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

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It happens somewhere between midnight and 6 in the morning during most summer days. During those witching hours, when most people are resting before the challenges of the day ahead, automatic systems silently climb in synchronization from below ground and propel a precious resource. When the system is done, it silently submerges below ground.

These irrigation systems spread water on lawns all over Long Island and, indeed, the United States.

This year, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation sent out a letter to the water departments throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties, asking them to reduce water usage by 15 percent within the next three to four years.

The 15 percent reduction is “an ambitious goal,” acknowledged Ty Fuller, director of strategic initiatives and lead hydrogeologist at the Suffolk County Water Authority, which is “attainable” but “it will not be easy.”

For consumers, reducing water usage offers several benefits. For starters, less water used means a lower water bill. Beyond that, however, lower water use conserves a valuable resource. Cutting back on water use also keeps water sources like SCWA and others from needing to drill more wells, upgrade pumps or develop more water systems to meet the increasing summertime demands of Long Islanders eager for lush, green lawns.

As Fuller pointed out, lowering water demand during those peak hours can also ensure that the water system can maintain a fire flow protection.

“That’s always a top priority,” Fuller said. “We want to make sure we can always meet” that demand. It is particularly important in the midst of a drought and as the threat of wildfires increases.

Yet changing consumer behavior on any level is challenging. After all, some of those who need to alter their watering habits are the same people who make New Year’s resolutions that barely last a week.

Fuller said SCWA has identified its top water users during the summer and is reaching out to them to advise on different conservation practices.

The authority is also holding regular water talks and has created a Water Wise Club, where some 382,000 account customers can qualify for credits if they purchase water savings devices. These items include low-flow shower heads and rain sensors, which turn off sprinkler systems after rainstorms when the lawns already have sufficient moisture. The rain sensor provides up to a $50 account credit.

SCWA is encouraging customers to adopt an odd/even system. If their street address is an odd number they water their lawns on odd days, while the even numbers only water lawns on even days.

SCWA rolled out the Water Wise CheckUp scheme with Brinkmann Hardware in Blue Point. Through a consultation with homeowners, an expert identifies each point of water use and provides a road map for savings. Customers requesting a checkup can call 631-292-6101. Customers can also receive information and print out a form at the website www.scwa.com/mobile/water_wise_checkup.

Consumers who become more informed about best practices for watering their lawns can help make this conservation initiative a reality.

“People have been led to believe that irrigating every day is a good thing,” Fuller said. “That can encourage fungal growth. If people see brown blades on their grass, they assume that’s not irrigated properly,” but that can be fungal growth. Adding more water to the lawn can exacerbate the problem.

Cutting back on water usage is a “win-win situation” for the customer and for the water system, Fuller said. “Why would people not want to play a role?”