It is almost beyond belief that because of known water-quality issues as long ago as 2005 the Town of East Hampton stopped posting lifeguards at a Lake Montauk beach popular with the parents of young children, but continued to tacitly allow swimming there. Although signs are posted declaring swimming prohibited, they are generally ignored.
South Lake had been closed to bathing on and off since at least the mid-1980s, but after 2005, when lifeguards were no longer assigned there, the Suffolk Department of Health discontinued regular water testing. Nevertheless, the town irresponsibly continued to allow access, with a residents-only parking lot.
Underscoring the concern, the state has for some time prohibited shellfishing in the south part of the lake from April to December because of pollution. Water-quality standards for shellfishing and swimming differ, so a seasonal shellfish closure does not automatically signify a health risk. In the absence of testing, however, the public cannot be assured. Is it or isn’t it a good place for a dip? The official signal has been mixed.
Another area popular with swimmers that is also seasonally closed to shellfishing is in Accabonac Harbor south of Wood Tick Island. A calm cove on the Louse Point side, it is especially popular with people who like easy, refreshing laps. Is it safe to swim there, despite the shellfish ban? Nobody knows. And East Hampton is not alone in this; Sag Harbor Village has long failed to give notice to swimmers about results from testing that showed traces of human waste at Havens Beach, nor has it moved forward fast enough with remediation proposals.
The reason for the concern at South Lake, and perhaps at Accabonac, is that because the county does not do regular testing, no one has been able to say for sure if swimming is a human health risk. Fortunately, testing was to have been done by the county this week at the request of Supervisor Bill Wilkinson. It is the only recent testing at South Lake Beach that anyone appears to know about. The town board is to consider what to do pending the results.
Odds are that the tests will show contamination of one form or another with a finding of human fecal waste likely, according to a former Suffolk Department of Health official. If this comes to pass, the town must explicitly and adequately alert the public. And, if access is to remain in place, the town should conduct its own regular testing.