What does it take to monitor the health of your local waterways? For the people who month after month do just that, all it takes is a love for the place one lives.
The Setauket Harbor Task Force was one of the most active of the 22 groups involved with Save the Sound and its bay water recording initiative. The immense amount of work is taken up by a squad of volunteers, some of whom have been active during the May through October months of the last three years.
The Setauket Harbor Task Force originated as a way to monitor the health of what they considered the lone “orphaned” bay on the North Shore, but their activities eventually spread over the border into Port Jefferson as well. While the task force originated in 2015 to help maintain the local waterways’ wellbeing, in 2018 the group joined the United Water Study program under the EPA’s Long Island Sound Study, and since then has done monitoring in 10 different locations in Port Jeff and Setauket harbors.
Hoffman, of the task force, said they have dedicated much of their time and energy to the project, especially maintaining rigorous scientific standards. They have gone out in foggy mornings where you could barely see a few feet in front of the boat. Once, their craft’s engine stopped working, and they had to be towed back to harbor. There have been times their small craft has rolled in early morning swells, but they keep on going.
“With climate and environment, there’s so little that most people can do,” he said. “Every day you read about a new thing — ice shelves melting, whales being beached … I find when I talk to volunteers, it’s just being able to do something.”
Every participating organization must take readings of the water twice a month, no less than 10 days apart. Because monitoring must be performed three hours before sunrise, volunteers are up well before dawn, getting into the small craft and wading out into the harbors. Their recording instrument, a sonde meter that records all manor of water quality metrics, costs close to $20,000.
Steve Antos, one of the task force board members, also owns Setauket Landscape Design. Though he and others in his group have lived in the area for decades, the idea of water quality has really taken a hold on many of its participants. Antos enjoys constructing rain gardens in his regular job, which are critical for preventing water runoff flowing from people’s yards down toward the Sound.
“In the past, everyone tried to get their properties to drain onto the road … and eventually it just runs into our bays and takes all the pollution and dog waste with it,” Antos said. “A lot of it is way beyond our control, but whatever we can do, just little things, it all adds up.”
Before working with the task force, many of the 10 or so volunteers wouldn’t have known what most of the readings, from the chlorophyll levels or turbidity (the water clarity) meant, but now have become a kind of citizen scientist, able to comprehend measurements using a very technical device. Their backgrounds range from a retired veterinarian to retired teachers, but what brings them together is their long time proximity to the bays and waterways of the North Shore. It’s what drove them to want to make sure the water was being maintained.
Tom Lyon, of Mount Sinai, and Mark Smith, of East Setauket, are the boat captains, and have lent their experience and water crafts to the project. They are small runabouts, one an 18-foot and the other 16.
Nancy Goldstein, herself a trained scuba diver, got into the project thanks to a friend and has been active for three years.
“I took marine biology in high school, but I’m totally not a scientist,” Goldstein said. “I care about the earth, and the marine — it’s all one.”
Bert Conover, a retired veterinarian from Port Jeff, said he has always been on the water “from Delaware River to Ocean City.” Long ago, he majored in chemistry and biology, but went to grad school for zoology and then went on to veterinarian school.
“Now that I’m retired it gives me a chance to give back,” he said. “And hopefully the data will redirect how to approach a healthy harbor.”
Alice Leser has lived in Stony Brook for 49 years, and is a life-long Long Islander. She has taught programs about Long Island waters as a teacher and alongside fellow environmentalists at the Long Island Museum. When three years ago the task force offered her a training program at the Village Center, she snapped up the opportunity.
“I’ve been surrounded by water my entire life,” she said. “I’ve canoeed all the rivers, and I’ve taught programs about Long Island waters, so I really care about the purity of the water.”
Laurie Vetere, the fellow co-founder of the task force, said they have not had anyone drop out in three years.
“When we first started this program, we found that we had more volunteers than we needed,” Vetere said. “People are attracted to the water.”
Hoffman agreed, saying there is something about Long Islanders and their connection to their coasts.
“Long Islanders are coastal people,” he said. “I think what keeps us on Long Island is we all have a love for the water.”