On Long Island Coast, An Unexpected Gift From Hurricane Sandy

One year after the storm that caused it, an inlet blasted in Fire Island has led to the cleansing of a long-polluted bay.
An aerial photograph of the inlet taken on September 15, 2013. (Charles Flagg)

In the mid-1980s, Long Island’s Great South Bay turned the color of Earl Grey tea. It was the first outbreak of an algal bloom known as the brown tide, and it would return year after year, fueled by pollution from the island’s septic systems. Over three decades, it would wipe out thousands of acres of underwater grass, contribute to the demise of a once-booming shellfish industry and make the shallow, 45-mile lagoon a symbol of the suburban island’s troubled relationship with water.

Then, a year ago, Hurricane Sandy blasted a new inlet through Fire Island, the slender barrier island separating the Great South Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Fishermen began to spot river herring, fluke, weakfish, sea turtles—even a seal that popped its head up alongside a dock—in a formerly stagnant, eastern swathe of the bay. Scientists watched water there grow clearer and the brown tide weaken and dissipate more quickly. As the year passed, parts of the Great South Bay started to look a bit more like the body of water many Long Islanders remember swimming in as children and scouring for shellfish in young adulthood.

It’s now a year since Hurricane Sandy made landfall, and the new waterway remains a fiercely debated piece of the storm’s legacy in New York State. Teams of scientists putter around it in skiffs. Residents pack high-school auditoriums to argue over whether it represents a blessing or a threat. Anglers flock to the scattered shoals at its mouth, and beachgoers walk a mile down the shore to bathe in it. A trio of governmental agencies continue to consider plugging it with sand.

Some fear the breach—now roughly the width of two football fields laid end-to-end—will magnify the power of the next superstorm, allowing more water to fill the bay and crash along the coast. “It’s a giant hole,” said Aram Terchunian, a Long Island coastal geologist who has worked as a consultant on other breach-closure projects. “What do you think is going to happen? You’re going to get a storm surge, water’s going to come flooding in through the inlet and it’s going to fill up the Great South Bay. It’s not rocket science.”

Others see a positive development and symbol of nature’s power of self-renewal—an instance of the ocean breaking through a barrier of land to rescue a bay that overfishing and overdevelopment had rendered all but unrecognizable. The blueness of the water around the inlet forms a stark line against the brown tide, reminding some residents of just how far Long Island’s waterways had fallen.

Ryan Wallace, a Stony Brook University doctoral student, analyzes water quality data in Long Island's Great South Bay in October 2013. (Will James)

“The bill came due in a lot of ways,” Marshall Brown said, “with Sandy and what it uncovered.”

Brown remembers the Great South Bay before the brown tide came. He was a kid growing up in Sayville, a Long Island hamlet that sits at the water’s edge. Native eelgrass grew so thick, he said, that boaters would have to reverse their outboard motors to spin slimy strands off their propellers. In the mid-1970s, when Brown was a teenager, baymen raked and dredged more than half the hard clams eaten in the country off the bay’s floor. Black-and-white photographs from that era show clam boats stretching to the horizon.

When Brown returned to Sayville for a high school reunion 35 years after he left for college, he walked his son down to the beach and found something entirely different. The water looked “disgusting,” he said —“dark, dirty, lifeless.” Fields of eelgrass were gone. So were the baymen. Just a handful still eked out a living off what was left on the bay’s floor.

What happened in between is one of Long Island’s most storied environmental collapses. Scientists blame, in part, overharvesting by the shellfish industry. But blame has fallen increasingly on the brown tide, which blocks sunlight and kills the eelgrass beds that shellfish use as nurseries. It also causes shellfish to close up and stop feeding, although scientists don’t know exactly why.

In recent years, studies have traced the brown tide to nitrogen pollution flowing from the island’s buried backyard septic systems. Long Island is home to 2.8 million people and part of the most populous metropolitan area in the country, but huge swaths of it aren’t connected to sewers, relying instead on septic tanks that allow wastewater to collect underground and leach into the earth. From there, nitrogen—a nutrient found in human waste—winds its way through the groundwater and into the bays, where it feeds the algal blooms.

Nitrogen pollution is emerging as a major environmental threat in many spots on the East Coast—like parts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Florida—where houses have sprouted up along the shoreline. Long Island, though, stands out. Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook University marine biologist, calculates that nitrogen levels doubled in one Long Island aquifer and rose 40 percent in another between 1987 and 2005. New York State in 2010 added the Great South Bay to a federal list of impaired water bodies, citing the nitrogen problem.

This is what Brown found when he moved back to Long Island after a career building Wi-Fi networks in New York City parks. When he founded Save the Great South Bay, a conservation group, with some high school friends the summer before Hurricane Sandy, he planned to organize beach cleanups and advocate for stricter environmental controls. He didn’t anticipate becoming one of the loudest advocates of an inlet carved by a hurricane. “It’s been very much a battle,” he said, against “bureaucratic momentum and, let’s say, the misplaced desire to make people feel safe.”

An aerial view of the new inlet in Fire Island as it was on April 18, 2013. (John Vahey)

The ocean bored through Fire Island sometime on October 29, 2012. It swept away a dock, a boardwalk and untold quantities of sand. Long Islanders dubbed it “New Inlet,” but it wasn’t exactly new – it came through at a low-lying stretch of beach where an older waterway once allowed oceangoing ships to cross through Fire Island and enter the Great South Bay. Some historical accounts say it closed in the 19th century, after a brig wrecked at its mouth.

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Will James is a writer in Long Island. 

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