Georgica Pond Is in Trouble, Supervisor Says

‘Legacy septic systems’ cited in toxic algal blooms
Georgica Pond is the focus of a new effort to reverse the effects of pollution. Morgan McGivern

Georgica Pond will only be brought back to health through new approaches to waste management, landscaping practices, and road runoff.

That was the consensus of a meeting Friday at Town Hall that included officials of East Hampton Town and Village, the town trustees, the Nature Conservancy, a coastal ecology researcher, and a property owners’ association, all of whom pledged cooperation in the effort. The pond has experienced dense, harmful algal blooms in the past two summers.

“We know that we have a growing problem that is the result of many years of human activity, mostly,” Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell told the group, referring to other local waterways that have suffered similar algal blooms. The algae suppress oxygen, killing fish and posing health hazards to humans. “In focusing on Georgica Pond, there’s a unique opportunity here, because we have a group of people coming together to try to deal with this,” Mr. Cantwell said. 

A monitoring buoy placed in the pond last year revealed the extent of its ill health, said Christopher Gobler, a professor of marine biology at Stony Brook University who monitors trustee-managed waterways here. Dr. Gobler, who was recently engaged by the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, the property owners’ group, said that at night during the summer, “the pond goes not hypoxic but anoxic” — fully depleted of oxygen — “and there were fish kills and other ills associated with it. Serious ecological and human health issues are in play.”

Friday’s discussion focused on nitrogen emanating from septic systems, which has been identified as a key culprit in the excess nutrients that cause algal blooms. “We have, primarily, an individual on-site septic system problem that sewers are not going to be the answer to, for the most part,” Mr. Cantwell said. The town board, he said, is assembling a water quality improvement plan that it hopes would be funded with money from the community preservation fund. Reauthorization of the C.P.F., with a provision allowing a portion of it to be allocated to water quality improvement projects, will be subject to a townwide referendum in November.

“We have all these legacy septic systems,” Mr. Cantwell continued. The question, he said, is when and how to encourage, or require, homeowners to replace them. Discussions have been held with the Suffolk County Health Department about identifying “trigger points” that would require their replacement, possibly targeting areas with known water-quality problems. Making replacement mandatory could be tied to a property’s change in ownership, or renovations. “There may be outright time frames in certain critical environments,” the supervisor said. “That’s where a possible rebate program or some use of C.P.F. funds could come into play. But that has to be thought out.”

One positive development, said Nancy Kelley of the Nature Conservancy, is that new septic systems tested in a geographically similar area — Cape Cod — have demonstrated 90-percent nitrogen removal, at a cost comparable to a typical existing system. “If we’re able to work with industry, government, and science to effectuate a plan that allows systems at affordable rates . . . as early as 2016, we can really get this job done,” perhaps sooner than anticipated, she said.

That timeframe is realistic, Dr. Gobler said. Peter Scully, the deputy county executive and formerly the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Long Island regional director, “is taking this very seriously,” he said. County approval of new septic systems, while not necessarily those tested on Cape Cod, can happen by year’s end, he agreed.

Sara Davison, the Friends of Georgica Pond group’s executive director, said that macro-algae would be harvested from the pond this summer. “We will learn if that is an effective mechanism of removing nitrogen,” she said. She also suggested installation of a permeable reactive barrier, a device comprising trench boxes filled with ground-up woodchips that intercepts groundwater as it seeps into a lake or pond. Such a barrier was tested at Pussy’s Pond in Springs, said Kim Shaw, the town’s director of natural resources, with results indicating an 85-percent reduction in nitrogen seepage. The town plans to install more of the devices at Three Mile and Accabonac Harbors, she said.

An initial analysis of groundwater at Ronald Perelman’s 57-acre Creeks estate bordering Georgica Pond “shows there are very high levels of nitrate there, seeping up through the sands,” Dr. Gobler said. That could dictate design and placement of a permeable reactive barrier, he added.

A more low-tech solution, said the marine biologist, would be placing barley straw in the pond in an enclosed container. “Scientists don’t know entirely why, but barley straw can mitigate blue-green algae blooms,” or cyanobacteria, the algae that afflicted the pond in 2014 and ’15. “I’m not saying that this is the long-term solution; however, I think it’s worth piloting on a small scale while we get other issues under control.”

The tidal flushing that occurs when the pond is let open to the Atlantic Ocean, which the trustees traditionally do in the spring and fall, allows more saltwater in, eliminating algal blooms. In addition to the openings, the town and trustees are pursuing renewal of a D.E.C. permit to dredge the pond, Mr. Cantwell said. By dredging, coupled with the twice-yearly letting to the ocean, “we’re going to maintain higher salinity levels for greater periods of time, which is the best enemy we have of the algal blooms,” he said.

In October, the town engaged GEI Consultants, a Connecticut firm, to assist in the permitting process, Ms. Shaw said, and a permit application will be ready in a few weeks. “The window we’re looking at,” Mr. Cantwell said, “is to make that application and obtain that permit in time for a dredging in the fall.”

In the past, the D.E.C. permit has been in the town’s name, as the trustees did not recognize the state agency’s authority. “It doesn’t matter to me,” Mr. Cantwell said. “I’m pragmatic about this.”

“We’d like to take that,” Francis Bock, who was elected the trustees’ presiding officer in January, replied. “The trustees are completely on board with this. We’re excited to be part of it.” 

A sand-management plan must be developed, Ms. Shaw said, and the town will seek an annual limit of 25,000 cubic yards of excavated sand, up from the 16,000 cubic yards allowed by the previous permit.

A spirit of optimism pervaded the meeting, with the group, which plans to convene quarterly, confident of achieving measurable results. But progress will be slow, Dr. Gobler warned. “Groundwater travel time can take awhile,” he said. “The watershed is large. To address all these nutrient issues is not going to happen overnight.”