Sag Harbor Gets Mixed Report On Water Quality

Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University. EXPRESS FILE

It was a case of some good news mixed in with some bad news when Dr. Christopher Gobler appeared at a Zoom meeting of the Sag Harbor Village Harbor Committee on March 18 to review the findings of water testing conducted in Sag Harbor last year.

A professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, Dr. Gobler was hired through a public-private partnership to conduct regular monitoring at various points along the village waterfront in order to develop a baseline reading of water quality near public beaches, private marinas, mooring fields, and the village’s sewage treatment plant. During initial studies conducted in 2018 and 2019, the focus was on nitrogen and the role it plays in water degradation and the sources of that pollution. Last year’s testing focused more on identifying the presence and sources of harmful bacteria.

Overall, Dr. Gobler said the local water quality was fairly good, although he said there were some areas of concern, particularly at Havens Beach and Little Northwest Creek to the east, both of which showed high levels of fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria, which can be harmful to humans.

Dr. Gobler shared some good news as well. He said the village’s sewage treatment plant is doing a good job of eliminating fecal coliform in the sewage it treats, although he said, the area inside the breakwater still has high levels of the bacteria that is dangerous to humans. Most of that, he said, is from birds and dogs, and it finds its way to the boat basin by way of road runoff. Although the boat basin is not a place where people do much swimming — unless they fall of a boat — he suggested the village might want to post it as a no-swimming area just to remain on the safe side.

More troubling results could be found at Havens Beach, where a drainage ditch that carries runoff from as far as Route 114 empties into the bay. Although the village has installed a filtration system in a vault near where the ditch empties into the bay, Dr. Gobler said water samples taken near that source showed high levels of fecal coliform there that were well above New York State Department of Environmental Conservation levels for shellfishing. Similarly, high levels of enterococcus, a bacteria used to determine whether an area is safe for swimming, were also found near the drainage area, Dr. Gobler said.

Last fall, Dr. Gobler added Little Northwest Creek to the list of areas being tested and discovered similarly high levels of coliform near its mouth, raising questions about the water quality along the entire beach from the Ninevah development to Havens Beach. Again, the source appeared to be birds and small mammals.

Although Dr. Gobler said more testing needed to be done at the creek, he said Havens Beach was another thing. “It’s been a problem for a long time,” he said in an interview this week, “longer than any elected officials have been in place.”

Mary Ann Eddy, the chairwoman of the Harbor Committee, said the village is submitting a $52,000 grant application to East Hampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund for a grant to study the entire watershed, “so we can methodically go through and solve the problems.”

She said the filtration system the village installed several years ago is limited in its ability to trap contaminants, and said perhaps the village will one day be able to revisit an idea, first proposed in the 1990s, to reconstruct a wetland system around the drainage ditch to allow the contaminants in the water to be filtered through the soil.

Trustee Aidan Corish, who oversees the sewage treatment plant, praised the plant’s operators for running such an efficient operation. “It’s a combination of great art and great science,” he said.

The plant has been upgraded over the years and now treats effluent with ultraviolet light just before it is released into the harbor. That ultraviolet kills harmful bacteria like fecal coliform, Mr. Corish said, a result that was borne out by Dr. Gobler’s findings.

“Effluent from the sewage treatment plant contained high levels of human-derived bacterial DNA, but low levels of fecal indicator bacteria,” Dr. Gobler wrote in his report. He explained during his presentation that essentially tests were recording dead coliform bacteria that were being released into the water.

Mr. Corish added that the water test results were some vindication for the plant, which has often been blamed for pollution in the harbor.

Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni also took part in the meeting and said he would like to see additional testing done on the Southampton side of the village. Dr. Gobler noted that testing was scaled back last year due to the pandemic and would likely be trimmed back even more this summer as a result of budgetary concerns.

Ms. Eddy said a copy of Dr. Gobler’s report would be posted to the village website soon.