Signs, Science, Swimming at Lake Montauk

    An East Hampton Town committee developing recommendations on protecting Lake Montauk from pollution presented the town board with several interim suggestions at a board meeting on March 12.
    New signs notifying boaters that Lake Montauk is a federally designated “no-discharge” zone are needed, the committee said, to make it clear that waste may not be released from vessels into the lake. The group suggested a public awareness campaign, perhaps coupled with a boating safety education effort focusing on issues such as boat driving while intoxicated and compliance with maximum-passenger limits.
    In addition, the committee said, waste pump-out services provided at a fixed station and by a pump-out boat operated by the East Hampton Town Trustees should be expanded, especially on weekends.
    The committee also suggested other signs, and perhaps kiosks, designed to inform people about the sensitive and unique ecology of the lake.
    A public outreach program could include litter clean-up efforts around the shores of the lake and a brochure covering guidelines for lake preservation and information about the Lake Montauk watershed.
    “It is suspected, but not proven, that some septic waste is finding its way into the lake from as far away as Ditch Plains,” the committee wrote in a report submitted to the town board.
    To avoid this, the group said, the town should encourage the upgrade and relocation of septic systems away from wetlands and surface waters, as well as the use of state-of-the-art sanitary systems, including those that can service more than one property.
    More frequent water testing for toxins and bacteria should be done at different sites around the lake, the group said, to “fill in the gaps” in data from tests done by the county and state.
    At the beach at South Lake, which has been closed to swimming by the County Health Department, the committee recommended that a sign now saying “Swimming Prohibited. No Lifeguard on Duty,” be changed to a more explicit message stating “Warning: Elevated bacterial levels have been recorded in this area. As a precaution all water contact in this area should be avoided.” The sign, the same as one used at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, where there are also water quality problems, depicts a silhouette of a swimmer covered with a red slash.
    Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley objected, saying that the water tests do not always show bacterial levels that would preclude swimming. “I find the sign completely contradictory, to the point that we want people to enjoy it,” she said of the beach.
    The levels do vary, said Julie Evans-Brumm, a committee member. But, she said, “Until we can actually remediate the source, we can’t actually open South Lake to swimming.” The committee’s final Lake Montauk watershed plan will address such mitigation.
    “The intent of the sign is to let people know that there is a possible health risk there,” said Brian Frank, a town planner and committee member. “Enterococcus is a pathogen,” he said, and those that are most vulnerable, such as the elderly and children, should protect themselves from it.
    “You can give me all the details you want,” Ms. Quigley said, “but, big picture, we have a town where you can’t do anything. We’re allowing downtown Montauk beaches to be eroded, we’re closing the lake. Where do people go?”
    “We are turning into a town where we shut down everything,” Ms. Quigley complained. “You guys have been in business for four years and all you’ve come up with is a sign?” she said to the committee members. “To me all that says is don’t use the beach.”
    She asked the committee to suggest language for a sign that “better reflects the science.”
    In its report to the board, the group reviewed its activities. It has mapped the lake watershed boundaries, modeled stormwater volumes for various level storms, developed a preliminary report on eelgrass, analyzed bottom sediments, inventoried finfish in the lake, and taken and analyzed coliform bacteria from 15 sampling stations around the lake.
    Continued work, resulting in a final Lake Montauk watershed plan, includes developing target goals, continuing discussions of sources of water quality impairments, and mapping the “sewershed,” or drainage infrastructure, around the lake.