On Fire Island, a Scar From Hurricane Sandy Is Seen as a Good Thing
NY Times
OCT. 3, 2016

BROOKHAVEN, N.Y. — For all the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy on the New York region four years ago, there were a few places that stood out, becoming symbols of the storm.

There was the image of a roller coaster resting in the ocean off Seaside Heights, N.J. There were miles of boardwalk ripped from pilings in the Rockaways, as well as the blackened remains of 126 houses that burned to the ground there. And on Fire Island, there was a breach carved by the storm surge, which opened a passage between the ocean and the bay.

While the worst of the storm damage has been put right, the lingering scar from Hurricane Sandy remains on Fire Island. But unlike the wreckage elsewhere, the breach that cuts through the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness here is, increasingly, seen as something of a good thing that many people, including local officials, environmental activists and marine scientists, say should be left alone.

The reason is that the Great South Bay, which is flanked by Fire Island and Long Island’s South Shore, has become a sick patient. In the past 30 years, the bay, which once supported a robust clamming industry, has been affected by leaking septic systems and storm-water runoff containing lawn fertilizers and herbicides. The excess nitrogen spawned pervasive brown tides and algal blooms that, in turn, led to the collapse of clamming and imperiled the bay’s ecosystem.

But the breach, scientists say, has breathed new life into the bay, flushing in fresh ocean water and pulling out polluted bay water.

“It was almost instantaneous,” Marshall Brown, co-founder of Save the Great South Bay, an environmental group, said of the effects of the breach. “The life just flowed into the bay — fish, seals and sea turtles. It’s been an unqualified boon. It has shown us what the Great South Bay once was, and what it could be again.”

The National Park Service, which manages the Fire Island National Seashore, is now considering whether to close the breach or let it remain. Two other breaches were also caused by Hurricane Sandy, but they were filled in immediately. But the breach at Old Inlet lies in a federally protected wilderness area, and policy requires monitoring of the new channel to see if it closes naturally.

Channels have opened before along the length of this 32-mile-long island. As its name implies, Old Inlet has provided a channel to the sea in the past. According to Charles N. Flagg, a marine scientist at Stony Brook University, the area was open for 60 years, until sometime in the 1820s.

The breach at Old Inlet has grown since the hurricane, but has stayed fairly stable over all. Initially, some local officials, including the Suffolk County executive and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, clamored for the breach to be closed immediately. They feared that the gash in Fire Island would leave the mainland vulnerable to increased flooding and future storms.

But research from Stony Brook University revealed that extreme high tides associated with storms in the six months after the hurricane were not the result of the breach, but were consistent with coastal patterns from Long Island to Cape Cod.

Perhaps more striking is the improvement in water quality, especially in the eastern areas of the Great South Bay — smaller bays like Bellport Bay and Narrow Bay and part of Moriches Bay. Chris Gobler, a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University, said that since the breach opened, nitrogen levels and water temperatures had fallen, while oxygen levels and water clarity had risen — all healthy trends.

“That area is closed to shellfishing, but the data we collected suggest that it could be reopened,” Dr. Gobler said.

Some local officials are now urging the Park Service to keep the breach. Ed Romaine, the town supervisor of Brookhaven, which is directly across the bay from the breach on Long Island’s South Shore, said tides “are not running that much higher” and there has been “very little flooding” as a result of the new gap.

“The breach has flushed out the eastern part of Great South Bay,” Mr. Romaine said. “Water quality and turbidity have improved considerably. For that reason, I would hope that the Army Corps does not rush to judgment, just because they have an engineered solution to everything.”

Even the most vocal proponents of closing the breach have done an about-face, including the Suffolk County executive, Steve Bellone, who once demanded that the breach be filled, arguing that there was “flooding in places that have never been flooded before.”

But now, according to a statement from his office, Mr. Bellone supports the environmental review of the breach, noting that “the flooding problems that were initially highlighted by many entities when the breach was created have not come to fruition.”

If the Park Service decides to close the breach, the United States Army Corps of Engineers would do the work. The agency is now completing an environmental assessment of the breach and will ask for public comment when it releases its findings this fall. Several months after Hurricane Sandy, the corps estimated that it would cost approximately $20 million to close the breach.

While federal officials say the breach has clear benefits, Christopher Soller, superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore, said there were concerns, too. Curing the ills of the Great South Bay requires addressing root causes of pollution, he said, such as upgrading septic systems and controlling runoff.

“Water quality in the Great South Bay is improving, but it’s very localized,” Mr. Soller said. “It’s not the salvation of the bay. We’re still dumping nitrogen and herbicides into the water.”

Suffolk County, where 75 percent of households are on septic systems, as opposed to sewer lines, is trying to address those issues. It recently started a pilot program that involved the installation of denitrification units — eco-friendly septic systems — in about 40 properties whose owners were chosen by lottery.

Mr. Soller also worries about the impact on the ocean. “The breach allows flushing of the bay, but it’s being flushed into the ocean,” he said. “The ocean is big, but how long can the ocean be allowed to absorb all this stuff?”

On a recent afternoon on Bellport Bay, Mike Busch steered his 24-foot sport-fishing boat toward the breach. Ocean waves were rolling into the bay, where bluefish leapt from the blue-green surface and herring gulls circled overhead.

Mr. Busch, a director of Save the Great South Bay, said that since the breach opened in late 2012, fish species have flourished. “There’s a tremendous comeback,” he said. “We have fluke now and striped bass. I’ve seen dolphins and cow-nose rays.”

An avid fisherman, Mr. Busch attributed the resurgence, in part, to the return of baitfish. “We have menhaden, glass minnows, sand eels, bunker,” he said before reeling in a bluefish in less than a minute. “When the bay was dying, you wouldn’t see bait like that. Now we have baitfish galore.”

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