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Don't Blame The Rain



I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about water in our town…. the quality of it (compromised), the supply of it (overconsumed), and the rise of it (persistent).


Like other folks living here, I track the weekly reports from several local environmental groups about their water testing across East End waterbodies. I appreciate and thank these organizations and their volunteers who are dedicated to doing this important and good work.


But though their work is good, the test results themselves are not; there are an awful lot of those yellow and red warning dots each week on the water quality maps. Most every week since June, I've read the same warning: “given the recent rain, people should refrain from swimming for 48-72 hours.” In other cases in some places, shell fishing had to be paused because of rain-driven contamination of the waters. For the fifth summer in a row, there has been a significant die-off of mature bay scallops in local East Hampton waters, even as just 98 miles east of us, bay scallop bumper crops in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard have been setting records over the same period, including this season.


And in August, along came “vibrio”…


More broadly, the July 27, 2023 issue of The East Hampton Star brought us the sobering article “Long Island Water Quality Has Never Been Worse by Chris Walsh, quoting the Long Island Marine Monitoring Network that “water quality in Long Island’s bays, harbors, and estuaries reached an all-time low, with water bodies awash in fish kills, dead zones, toxic algal blooms, and fecal bacteria,” that “current conditions threaten public health, economies, and ecosystems across Long Island” and that “only six of 30 sites between East Hampton and Hempstead ranked good…and only one site meeting all water quality guidelines.”

The bad water news continued to intensify post summer. Of note, the September 18th and 25th water test results were particularly grim, with what looked to be nearly two-thirds of all sites tested across East Hampton, including some ocean sites, registering “high" bacteria levels.


"Water quality in Long Island’s bays, harbors, and estuaries reached an all-time low...current conditions threaten public health, economies, and ecosystems."

On September 30, the NYS DEC declared a near-total shutdown of East Hampton waterbodies to shellfish harvesting that lasted a week, which, among other things, forced the cancellation of our beloved "Biggest Clam Contest" for the first time since it began more than thirty years ago. And on October 1, the annual Montauk Mighty Man Triathlon had to cancel the swim leg of the race because not only was its Fort Pond swim venue again declared too toxic for human contact, but their contamination-back-up site in Fort Pond Bay also was too contaminated for swimming.


On a personal note, between 2001 and 2004, I swam three of those triathlon swims in Fort Pond. Each time I started the race, I worried about things like being kicked in the head by another swimmer in the chaotic racing scrum, or how fast would I make the transition from the water to my bike...but never did I think to worry about being sickened by the water. A mere decade later, Fort Pond basically has become an impaired waterbody; water quality tests in it came back poor nearly every week this summer and the season was capped up by another toxic blue-green algae bloom.


 

When I read most social media posts and articles about water quality, I see the ongoing water fouling attributed sometimes to hot weather but mostly to the rain.


Yes of course it rained, and on a handful of occasions this summer, it rained A LOT…Ark-like a lot with no let-up for several hours at time. (As I am writing this on October 1, it’s torrential and my cottage roof has now surrendered and sprung a leak.) Climactic patterns and scientific data indicate that on an ongoing basis we should expect greater frequency and intensity of rain, flooding, and other severe weather events, including extended heat waves, as well as rapidly rising and record-setting water temperatures. But positioning the rain as if it is the “cause” of compromised – if not collapsing – water quality seems to me to be “burying the lede.”


A repeated message that rain is at fault has the effect of “normalizing” a crisis situation that should otherwise be considered untenable. Subtly, it conditions us to resign ourselves to the idea that, oh well, it rained again, so we can’t go into the water or eat what comes out of it. Instead of lighting our hair on fire, it numbs us to the need to be fighting --to demand a fix, to focus on the real cause of the catastrophe -- and it distracts us from taking actions we need to take.


A repeated message that rain is at fault has the effect of “normalizing” a crisis situation that should otherwise be considered untenable....Instead of lighting our hair on fire, it numbs us to the need to be fighting--to demand a fix...

Though downpours and rising temperatures DO exacerbate water quality problems and pathogen-laden runoff, and they catalyze toxicity events such as algal blooms, let’s make no mistake about what is happening here in East Hampton: human activity, specifically in this case the ballooning scope and scale of development and the intensification of both residential and commercial uses is the root cause of the stunning degradation of water quality unfolding in front of our eyes; it is the wellspring despoiling our precious water bodies.


We continue to witness unprecedented and unnecessary supersizing of houses, and with this engorged development comes the proliferation of structure, hardscape, and landscaping that create water quality problems in myriad ways.


First, the bigger the house, the greater the occupancy and intensity of use, meaning increased flow of sewage and other polluting effluents. And yes, indeed I understand that the new “modern” I/A septic systems offer meaningful improvement and reduce nitrogen compared with antiquated options. But there’s a reason these newer systems are called “low nitrogen” and not “no nitrogen.” They reduce but they do not eliminate the nitrogen problem, their long-term efficacy in a world of rising groundwater is not known fully, and they are not necessarily effective at dealing with other types of contaminants. Their purpose is supposed to be the mitigation of existing septic flow volumes, and not to be used to support or justify bigger flows coming from expanding development.

We continue to witness unprecedented and unnecessary supersizing of houses, and with this engorged development comes the proliferation of structure, hardscape, and landscaping that create water quality problems in myriad ways.

Second, the breadth of structure associated with increased house size can generate excessive runoff, and expanding lot coverages and density compromise the resiliency of the land and its ability to absorb heavy rains and mitigate flooding. The accelerating trend of ever bigger and deeper concrete “below-grade” living spaces also undermine absorption and could even interfere with natural hydrological patterns. (Keep in mind that these below-ground luxury stories don’t even get counted by our current code in the official calculation of allowable house size.)


Third, in order to make way for bigger houses and all their so-called “amenities,” there’s the profound impact of increased clearing/over clearing of mature trees, shrubs and ground cover, especially the loss of native vegetation. The clearing as well as extensive excavation and regrading related to construction does much to disrupt the process of water recharge, as it also undermines absorption of rain, runoff, and proper filtering of pollutants. And then, to top it all off, add in the harmful effects of profligate over-irrigation and inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides.


The surface of the land on all of our lots together is supposed to function as the first essential filtration layer for rainwater down towards the aquifer as part of the lengthy and life sustaining recharge process. Lands stripped of native vegetation and their deep root systems, smothered under impervious surfaces and irrigation-sodden sod laden with chemicals and septic waste are a poor filter indeed, and our ground water and surface waters suffer.

And speaking of irrigation…in addition to the persistent water quality problems that plagued us all season, concerns about water supply –more specifically, overconsumption--also emerged this summer as the other most critical water issue.


Not only are we warned of seasonal shortages when for weeks we tilt toward extreme-heat and drought rather than deluge, and when thousands of irrigation systems fire off daily all at the same time putting undue strain on the Water Authority’s pumping system, but we again read about the astounding overconsumption by the list of notorious “water hogs” published each year.


That is bad enough, but coming to light recently is an even more monumental issue we face about water supply. The significant research piece in the New York Times at the end of August "America is Using Up Its Ground Water Like There’s No Tomorrow" (in which the East End is highlighted) should be a real wake-up call. In short, overuse and over pumping from the aquifer by ever larger development and more intense uses directly threatens the aquifer, not just in terms of depleting it sooner than we ever considered, but it also creates the risk of saltwater intrusion and contamination.


 

All in, what is happening with climate, sea level rise, erosion and flooding, the decline of our ecosystems, the degradation of our water quality as well as potential for contamination or depletion of our sole-source aquifer is clear and incontrovertible. So, it is inconceivable that oversized development continues not only apace, but that in fact the scale of construction continues to expand and extract cavalierly in the face of it all.


I track the real estate trends, and right now in East Hampton, there are at least 60 very recent new constructions on the market right now, and the average size of those approaches 6,400 square feet with 6 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms and ranges up to 14,000 square feet. Many of these are not on particularly big lots, and a significant portion of this activity is on or near our shorelines. I'd also note that this is a material increase relative the same analyses I've done over the prior two years.


So what’s it going to feel like if all summer long we cannot swim or paddle or fish in our bays and harbors and lakes because its hot and it rained? What’s it going to be like one day perhaps when we can't slurp down those raw clams and oysters we love so much that come out of our waters -- or when shellfishing overall collapses here?


I don’t think I really have to tell anyone, let alone our Town Board, that water is THE existential issue for East Hampton. It’s everything -- it defines us, it defines this place, our heritage, our wellbeing, our joy, as well as the economy and many people’s livelihoods. For now, we can’t control the heat and we can’t control the rain. But the Town indeed can “control” appropriately its land use policy and zoning code. The Town can manage rationally what we build, how big we build, where we build, and where and what we don’t build.


So, it’s time now to stop blaming the rain.

I don’t think I really have to tell anyone that water is THE existential issue for East Hampton. It’s everything -- it defines us, it defines this place, our heritage, our wellbeing, our joy, as well as the economy and many people’s livelihoods.

Now is the time to confront reality and muster a sense of urgency about sustaining the value and viability of our land, water and community. Now is the time to propose and make meaningful changes to house size, coverage and clearing allowances all across the town, and even more specifically, for the town to consider implementing special zones around our coastal and dune land areas to ensure even more judicious scope of development there. And now is the time for us all to come together to protect what we love.


We’re past the time of tweaking things around the margins. We need a real rethink and true reset. Overdevelopment is no longer simply about neighborhood character or “aesthetics”—this is about the true health, safety, and welfare of all of us in East Hampton.

 

(Note: a version of this piece appeared as a Letter-To-The Editor under the title "The Root Cause" in the October 5, 2023 edition of the East Hampton Star)

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