Officials, Residents Meet on Beach to Ponder Dredging Little Northwest Creek

Little Northwest Creek not longer exits directly into the bay but runs west, eroding the beach in front of homeowners in the Ninevah community. Dana Shaw photo

About 30 residents of Ninevah Beach and the neighboring Azurest and Sag Harbor Hills communities met outdoors with local officials one evening earlier this month to show how their bay beach has been eroded by the wandering outlet of Little Northwest Creek.

The problem isn’t just the loss of the beach to a creek that now bisects it: bacteria have been detected in the creek by the state DEC, forcing it to ban shellfishing in the creek across an area 250 yard around its mouth after heavy rains.

“That’s more of a concern,” said John Parker, a member of the Sag Harbor Village Harbor Committee, at a recent meeting of the panel, although he added that the problems residents face protecting the beach “are not insubstantial.”

“When I was kid, like 50 or 60 years ago, the creek ran straight out from the marsh right into the bay,” said Mike Payne, who has a house in Ninevah overlooking the creek’s wetlands, in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Over the years, a peninsula, or sand bar, has formed down the beach to the west, causing the creek to run 100 yards to the west. Now the creek runs parallel to the beach and is eroding it. Waves come over this sandbar and pound across the creek and into what used to be the beach area.”

Just last year, people began noticing how the beach “was actually shrinking,” Mr. Payne said. A footpath from Harding Terrace that used to lead onto a wide bay beach now leads to a four-foot drop-off into the creek, he said.

“At high tide, you can’t walk on the beach side of the creek without stepping into it,” Mr. Payne said.

He was one of about 30 residents who met with officials from Sag Harbor Village and East Hampton town, as well as Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Legislator Bridget Fleming, at the September 4 gathering on the beach west of the creek, which was arranged by East Hampton Town Trustee Rick Drew after Mr. Parker pushed for it.

Left to right, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Legislator Bridget Fleming, and East Hampton Town Trustee Rick Drew on the beach meeting with residents of the SANS community about Little Northwest Creek. Courtesy John Parker

The group informally agreed their goal should be to develop a management plan for the creek that would call for regular maintenance dredging to increase the creek’s water flow; improve water quality in the creek; and return it to its historic, shorter path farther to the east, with its outlet aimed more to the north, toward Barcelona Point, than the west, toward Havens Beach.

Residents were “all on board to provide the seed money” to take the first steps toward developing, and winning state approval for, a dredging plan, according to Will Sharp, another member of the Harbor Committee, who attended the gathering and reported on it at the committee’s monthly meeting on September 9. Funding for the entire project is something to be determined and will require “a meeting of the minds” among government agencies, Mr. Thiele said in an interview on Tuesday.

The creek has been dredged in the past, according to Mr. Payne, but it was decades ago, when he was a child. “I remember a dredge on a large barge in front of the creek when I was 11 or 12 years old,” he said.

Why the creek has widened, shallowed and veered to the west behind a sandbar is a mystery that Mr. Parker and others pondered at the September 9 Harbor Committee meeting.

“What happened here?” asked the panel’s chair, Mary Ann Eddy, to alter the creek from a path it has fairly steadily followed until just recently, according to aerial photos dating back to the 1930s. She wondered aloud if “something offshore has changed the bottom” of the bay and affected its wave action.

“There used to be extensive beds of eelgrass,” replied Mr. Parker, “and they have entirely disappeared. Over the years between 2011 or 2012 and 2017 and 2018, they’ve entirely disappeared, as if you had a lawn and you came back a few years later and it’s just sand.”

Water quality and rising water temperatures may be the cause, board members suggested.

Before moving forward on a management plan, jurisdiction and ownership issues in the area of Northwest Harbor need to be investigated, according to Mr. Drew of the East Hampton Town Trustees.

He noted that the Trustees, who own the bay bottoms under the terms of Colonial-era royal patents but sold some of the area to the state, agreed at a recent meeting to hire a lawyer and an archivist to begin looking into the ownership question. It will involve “360 years of deals done on a handshake over a poker table,” based on landmarks like “the tree that looks like a rock and the rock that looks like a bear,” he said in a phone interview.

“We’re trying to expedite” that investigation to help determine “whoever will be the lead agency” to develop a dredging plan. Meanwhile, he said, there will be a follow-up meeting of a steering committee of local officials and representatives from the three beach communities to continue the discussion.

“It gets tricky” with “cross-agency projects,” he said, and in this case New York State and the Army Corps of Engineers will have to review any dredging plans and grant permits. The work might be done by the Suffolk County dredge or a private contractor, he said.

“To me, the two biggest things” to be addressed are winning permits for a dredging plan and finding the money to pay for it, commented Assemblyman Thiele. The major issue in permitting the work, he added, “is usually what is the quality of the material to be dredged and how will it be disposed. Should it be put on the beach as an erosion control measure? That’s always the threshold question and the most difficult to answer. But there’s no question that dredging is needed. It’s long overdue.”

Mr. Parker said in an interview he began meeting with the East Hampton Town Trustees to push for action on the creek problem at the urging of Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy. The creek forms the eastern boundary of the village, the eastern section of which lies in the Town of East Hampton.