By Stephen J. Kotz
As might be expected, representatives of the Peconic Estuary Program, the federal program created nearly a quarter century ago to help local municipalities protect the health of the local bay system, were preaching to the choir when they conducted a quarterly meeting of the organization’s citizens advisory committee in Sag Harbor on May 18.
What perhaps was not to be expected was that some of the choir members talked back, often in tones of bitter frustration over what they said was a general failure to take larger strides toward protecting the environment.
The meeting, which took place at the Sag Harbor Municipal Building was chaired by Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy and included presentations by executive director Alison Branco and other PEP staff.
The dozen or so participants attending where asked to describe their chief water quality concerns and what they hoped to see in the next five years.
Responses to those questions were not out of the ordinary: Participants said they had come because they were concerned with things like leaching septic systems, the large amount of fertilizers that were making their way into the bays, and the lack of adequate buffer zones between wetlands and upland areas. And their longer term goals were, not surprisingly, for a restored bay system that would restore eelgrass, protect shellfish and fish, and continue to provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.
John Shaka, the chairman of the village Harbor Committee and an avid swimmer, said the changes to the natural environment were obvious, if subtle. “The water is cloudy where it used to not be,” he said. “Most people drive by and it looks pretty. Or people are on their boat for the weekend and it looks pretty.” It would not be a big stretch to go from the current conditions to a seriously polluted bay, he said.
Mr. McDonald said he feared a new normal, in which pollution is accepted as the status quo. Speaking of his own sons, who are in their 20s, he pointed out, “They think the brown tide and red tides and other tides like that are normal.”
Steve Storch, who runs an organic landscaping business, said until steps are taken to protect upland areas from over-fertilization and other unhealthy practices, there would be little hope for the bays to recover. “I think people have to get mad,” he said after describing a world in which lots are clear-cut for development, soil packed down, and plants doused with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to offer homeowners a trophy landscape. “Tax them every year 2 percent of their property value if they want to use these chemicals,” he said.
Muriel Falborn of Sag Harbor said the time had come to ban harmful chemicals that are used on lawns and gardens. “It seems so obvious to me,” she said, adding “I walk through the village and I see guys from trucks spraying far away and I ask them whare you spraying, and they say, ‘I don’t know.’”
“Why do we have to wait until it is a crisis? We knew were headed here,” offered Mike Bottini, saying that environmentalists knew in the late 1980s that nitrogen loading was becoming a problem. “We couldn’t even get someone to acknowledge it was a problem.”
While participants bemoaned the lack of progress on solutions, Dr. Branco said there were good signs as well. She pointed to the state legislature’s authorization of an extension of the Community Preservation Fund and the allocation of up to 20 percent of those funds for water quality projects. The changes are subject to voter approval. And she praised efforts afoot at the county level to tackle the problem of septic systems that often leach into groundwater.
In addition, she said Congress had reauthorized the national estuary program for the first time since 2010 and that would create additional funding opportunities for local pollution abatement projects.
Mr. Bottini offered a suggestion for just such a project. An alewife dreen off North Sea Road in North Sea is subjected to heavy road runoff, and he suggested a rain garden could be installed there to filter the runoff. He said he had spoken with Southampton Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor. “It’s a money thing,” Mr. Bottini said.
Sag Harbor Trustee Robby Stein, who also sits on the committee, cited an ongoing effort to redesign the village’s main municipal parking lot, which is built on landfill, and install rain gardens there to reduce runoff.
Sherryll Jones, the estuary program’s outreach coordinator, also introduced the Citizen Ambassador program, in which volunteers work to get their civic organization’s involved in the estuary program’s management plan update. It distributes educational materials to their community, staffs educational volunteer tables at community events, and serves as a secret shopper to visit local garden centers to asses the understanding of fertilizer use in the watershed, she said.