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.