Lake Montauk Pollution Solutions

Buying vacant land and incentives for septic upgrades in watershed suggested
A watershed management plan has been drafted to improve water quality in Lake Montauk and its surroundings. Durell Godfrey

A study of Lake Montauk and its 2,760-acre watershed has identified the threats to water quality in the lake and set out a list of recommendations for East Hampton Town to follow. Water quality is good in the lake’s center but poor in areas where the tide does not reach and pollution runs into the lake, the study says.

One approach to water quality protection, preserving vacant land around the lake, is already moving forward. East Hampton’s Department of Land Acquisition contacted the owners of 200 undeveloped properties totaling 150 acres within the lake watershed about possible purchase of their land with the town’s preservation fund. Forty-one responded, and several purchases are in the works.

Carrie O’Farrell of Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis, a consulting firm that worked with members of a town-appointed Lake Montauk technical advisory group to develop the watershed management plan, reviewed the plan’s findings and suggestions at a town board meeting on June 10.

With funding from a New York State Department of State grant, the study group looked at the watershed’s topography, depth to groundwater in the areas surrounding the lake, land ownership, including an inventory of land owned by the public or nonprofit organizations, drainage infrastructure, and surface water impairment in the entire watershed, including the 20 freshwater wetlands around the lake.

 The filling and removal of some of those wetlands contribute to poor water quality, Ms. O’Farrell said, as does the removal of trees and vegetated buffers, over-fertilization of lawns, and the discharge of stormwater and sanitary waste to surface and groundwater without adequate filtration.

Problems are particularly evident in the southern part of the lake, the report says. High levels of pathogens there are attributed to conditions in the Ditch Plain neighborhood, including poorly draining soils, shallow depth to groundwater, and poor quality wetlands in a high-density residential area.

Water quality tests by the Suffolk County Health Department, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and other agencies have led to the closures of bathing beaches at East Lake and South Lake Drives, due to high coliform levels, and shellfishing closures at Star Island, South Lake, the Montauk Lake Club, and Coonsfoot Cove, which has been closed permanently to shellfishing.

High nitrogen and chlorophyll-a levels, toxic cyanobacteria, and poor water-column quality has been noted at Big Reed Pond.

The report contains recommendations for action in six areas: stormwater runoff and water quality; municipal facilities; wastewater; regulatory issues; public education and stewardship, and the water bodies themselves.

It suggests that tidal flushing and circulation in Lake Montauk be studied, identified, and mapped, that the contribution of septic systems to pollution in the lake be investigated, and that water quality testing be increased. The use of aeration systems should be considered in the lower part of the lake, the report suggests.

Improvements to stormwater drainage systems are recommended.

The entire stormwater management system around the lake — or its ?“sewershed” — should be mapped to track inspections and maintenance of stormwater systems, the report says.

To reduce sewage leeching into the lake, the management plan suggests the town consider establishing incentive programs for septic system upkeep or replacement, or low-interest loan programs, and investigating options for alternative septic waste treatment in highly developed areas in the watershed.

In addition, the report suggests the town could provide incentives to encourage the use of “green” infrastructure in site and drainage design around the lake.

A Lake Montauk protection overlay district, or watershed improvement district, should be established to raise money for watershed protection initiatives and facilitate the adoption of area-specific regulations, the plan says. One that is recommended would require a vegetated buffer of at least 50 feet along the lake on residential properties and of at least 20 feet on commercial sites.

Signs should be posted, the report says, to educate the public about the ecological importance of the lake, and to inform swimmers about the potential health hazards of taking a dip at the South Lake beach.

The report includes a list of state and federal agencies from which money could be sought to implement aspects of the watershed management plan. Adopting such a plan, the consultants say, is “a key component in securing funding.”

With money already available from the 2-percent real estate transfer tax that supplies the community preservation fund, Scott Wilson of the town’s Land Acquisition Department told the board that parcels around the lake were targeted in a wide-ranging outreach to property owners, the first that has been undertaken. The procedure could also be followed to acquire properties in areas around other pollution-affected waters, such as Three Mile and Accabonac Harbors.

The town board will hold a hearing tonight at 6:30 at Town Hall on the purchase of three Lake Montauk watershed properties — a .35-acre lot at 148 Greenwich Street owned by Virginia Colombi-Carbone for $275,000; a half-acre lot at 15 Furness Road owned by Fred Pederson for $250,000, and a 38 South Greenwich Street lot of just over an acre owned by Anthony and Irene D’Agostino for $345,000.