Slow Montauk Wastewater Plan

There is little argument that something should be done about wastewater in Montauk. The hamlet’s soaring popularity and overcrowding have been linked to water quality problems. The question is whether the $32.8 million initial project now being planned is the correct approach. 

Step one would be for the town to build a centralized sewage system in which waste would be held in a beachside site then pumped to a treatment station near the recycling center on Montauk Highway. About 200 properties would be served in this phase. Additional areas could be tied into the system later, roughly doubling the cost. 

Three major problems are obvious. One is that the areas that would be served are of minimal ecological importance when compared to other, more vulnerable locations. Another is the way the project would be funded and what that says about sound coastal policy. The third is that so far there are no empirical data by which to evaluate over time whether the effort would in the end improve the environment.

Groundwater in downtown Montauk, which would be tied into the system first, is generally believed to drain toward Fort Pond, though some of it reaches the ocean. Fort Pond is considered partially compromised because it has been affected by potentially harmful algae blooms. Nevertheless, it has a thriving recreational fishing scene and its waters are at most times safe enough for human contact. 

This is not to say that Fort Pond doesn’t have to be restored; at some point, it should be. However, it should be clear to officials and leaders of environmental organizations that it does not come close to other waterways in terms of recreational, commercial, or natural importance. Lake Montauk, Accabonac Creek, Napeague Harbor, and Three Mile Harbor, which each supports important fisheries and shellfish harvesting, rank far higher as waterways where money should be spent.

Follow the money, they say. And, following the money, it becomes clearer why one of the sites with the lowest priority for wastewater improvement jumped to the top of the list. The Montauk system would be largely paid for through fees assessed on properties in a new taxation district, with the greatest share of the money from several oceanfront hotels and condominiums — the very structures threatened by erosion and for which as much as $10 million already has been spent in an effort to stave off the inevitable.

The town’s proposed dependency on money from these oceanfront hotels would lock into place the properties’ long-term existence, ignoring the danger of sea level rise and more powerful storms fueled by a warming planet. Experts on coastal policy say the only viable strategy is one of retreat — reducing development over time in the most vulnerable places. By designing new and expensive infrastructure in harm’s way, the East Hampton Town Board and its engineers are ignoring the obvious and dooming future taxpayers to costly efforts to protect something that should not have been allowed in the first place.

It is important to note that the plan’s architect, Pio Lombardo, has said there has not been enough baseline environmental testing to know if the sewage plant would even be worthwhile; right now, it is only guesswork. Nonetheless, Mr. Lombardo has urged a fast-track timeline to meet a June deadline for a state grant that would offset some of the cost. This contradiction needs to be publicly addressed. The new town board should be brave enough to apply the brakes until at least that question is answered.