The Mecox Cut, a man-made trench dug periodically between the Atlantic Ocean and Mecox Bay, has been flowing for nearly 13 weeks, and closing it does not appear to be an option anytime soon because of the presence of endangered and threatened bird species.
The Southampton Town Trustees are charged with opening and closing the cut, while also balancing the needs of farmers, boaters, homeowners and nature.
When the cut is closed, the bay fills up to levels that flood basements and septic systems. The added water causes the salinity and dissolved oxygen in the water to drop as well, creating an unhealthy environment for the many types of finfish and shellfish that live in the bay.
When the cut is opened, on the other hand, water flows in and out of the bay, creating a flushing of sorts, as well as a healthier environment for the life that lives in the bay. But one of the downsides to keeping the cut open is that the water drops to a level in which boaters cannot operate in the bay. Also, when left open, the trench can sometimes meander to the east and west, threatening to erode beaches in front of multimillion-dollar homes.
“We’ve had a few complaints from people calling up and requesting us to close it,” Trustee Bruce Stafford said on Monday. “Some of those people have docks and boats, and they can’t use them because they’ve got no water.”
Mr. Stafford said he tries to explain to those people wanting the cut to be closed that the Trustees are trying to play fair with everyone. “Put yourself on the other side of the coin,” he said. “That means everybody’s septic is finally out of the water and the land can finally dry up.”
The last time the Trustees closed the cut was on April 2. Typically, the Trustees try not to close or open the cut in April, because of the arrival of migratory endangered and threatened birds like piping plovers and least terns.
In order to open and close the cut, the Trustees are required to obtain permits from the State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But when plovers and terns are around, it can be a challenge.
Shortly after the cut was closed in April, Mr. Stafford said, a storm came through and opened the cut naturally, and it has flowed ever since.
“Our hands are tied,” he said. “We were thinking about closing it, and now we have no choice, because now there’s something preventing us from closing it.”
Mr. Stafford was referring to the plovers, and once the birds nest, have eggs and those eggs hatch, the beach gets closed off to vehicles for 1,000 meters east and west of the nest.
In years past, the Trustees have been able to conduct emergency openings and closings of the cut with a monitor on site who watches the plovers to make sure they are not harmed—but that cannot happen this time.
Mr. Stafford said every time the cut is opened, a supply of sand is put to the side to allow for the cut to naturally close or for machines to move the sand into the trench to plug it. On April 2, the Trustees used their supply of sand when they closed the cut.
When the Trustees were told to close the cut on April 2, Mr. Stafford said, he pleaded not to do so, because the salinity was still low, and closing it would be a waste of sand.
“We can only store so much,” he said. “Now that we wasted that amount of sand, where are we going to get it from? If there’s not enough stored on land, we have to go out and start dredging again. Where’s the money?”
Despite not being able to close the cut, Town Trustee President Ed Warner said the water quality in the bay is good, and crabbers are having one of the best seasons in almost 40 years. He also said the salinity is higher, and a biomass of assorted fish, including bluefish, striped bass, fluke and eels, are able to survive under the favorable conditions.
Additionally, he said, the likelihood of a toxic blue-green algae outbreak occurring in the bay is almost zero.
The only drawback he has heard about are the effects to boaters.
“We’ve had complaints in the office that the bay’s too low for people to launch their jet skis and boats in there,” Mr. Warner said. “Other than that, that’s about the only complaint we’ve had.”
Mr. Stafford said the cut has not meandered much, and the homeowners along the oceanfront are not in any jeopardy of losing the sand behind their homes.
As soon as that becomes an issue, he said, the Trustees might be able to get an emergency opening permit from the DEC and USFWS.
“We closed it to the best of our ability, and Mother Nature doesn’t always keep things closed,” Mr. Warner said. “It’s a shared resource, and everybody has to realize we do the best we can.”