Water Quality at Montauk’s South Lake Beach Is Questioned

    With swimming season set to begin soon, a question remains about whether the public should be warned against taking a dip in Lake Montauk from a beach along the shore at South Lake where parents have long brought children to wade and splash. Water tests have revealed skyrocketing levels of organisms that indicate fecal contamination, particularly after heavy rain.
    In a presentation to the East Hampton Town Board earlier this year, the Lake Montauk Technical Watershed Advisory Committee, which has been working on an anti-pollution plan, recommended replacing a sign at the beach that says “Swimming Prohibited: No Lifeguard on Duty,” with a more explicit message stating that “all water contact in this area should be avoided.”
    That proposed sign, complete with a depiction of a swimmer circled in red with a red slash, drew criticism from Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who called it “completely contradictory” to the town’s goal of having people enjoy the beach. “The intent of the sign is to let people know that there is a possible health risk there,” Brian Frank, a town planner and watershed committee member, told her. 
    The South Lake beach has traditionally been the site of sailing lessons offered by the Town Recreation Department. The lessons are set to begin on June 24, though a new location is being considered, the County Health Department having recommended that the program be moved because of the water-quality issue.
    Because South Lake has no lifeguard it is not considered an official county bathing beach. (The county mandates the “no swimming” notices wherever bathers are unprotected.)
    Ed Michels, the town’s chief marine patrol officer, called the situation “a catch-22,” and has been seeking a firm answer from the Health Department as to whether he should be enforcing “no swimming” at the Lake Montauk beach based on health concerns. If that is the case, he said this week, it could also be true at a number of other town beaches. He said he believes the contamination stems from stormwater runoff, but “if that water is constantly contaminated” he would feel compelled to have officers keep swimmers out.
     Mr. Michels’s inquiries resulted in the county recommendation to move the sailing program.
    The county normally performs water-quality tests only at official bathing beaches, from May through September, including after heavy rainfall. If a public health hazard is found, the beach must be conspicuously posted with a sign prohibiting its use. Water samples are tested for levels of “indicator organisms,” harmless microbes found in the intestinal tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals, that can indicate fecal contamination and potential disease-causing pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
    At marine beaches, the organism that is measured is enterococcus. A base measure equals 104 “colony-forming units” per milliliters of water.  The results of water tests done at South Lake last year and in 2011, at the town’s request, show levels as high as 1,740 c.f.u. at one point in 2011, with a range from less than 4 c.f.u. to levels in the 800s on an August day in 2011, and a range from 20 to 136 c.f.u. in four test results from last summer. The levels spike after heavy rains and then return to a safe and normal range.
     The pathogens can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and fever, as well as upper respiratory illnesses and skin, eye, ear, nose, and throat infections. Individuals with compromised immune systems, the elderly, and children, because of the possible ingestion of water, are most vulnerable to those illnesses.
    Since stormwater runoff is a principal mechanism by which contaminants are introduced to coastal waters, particularly those, like Lake Montauk, in harbors or other enclosed areas that do not experience a full tidal flush, the Health Department recommends not swimming in those locations for at least 24 hours, preferably 48, after heavy rains.
    The watershed committee members have recommended more frequent testing of areas all around Lake Montauk, even if the town has to supplement Health Department procedure.
    Last summer, according to Kim Shaw, the director of natural resources, after the town asked the county to perform new tests, the sources of contamination at South Lake were determined to be two stormwater drains on either side of the beach. The county said afterward that it would do no further testing, save for state-required sampling done after significant rains, until something was done about the drains.
    The process of solving Lake Montauk’s ecological problems is well under way, Ms. Shaw said, with a study overseen by her department and the watershed advisory committee to identify failing or inadequate septic systems that can discharge pollutants that end up in the lake. A public meeting this summer will provide an update and additional opportunity for data-gathering, she said, and a draft watershed management plan should be completed next spring.
    Supervisor Bill Wilkinson requested water tests at South Lake in August 2011, after discussions of Lake Montauk’s overall health by members of the lake advisory committee. They revealed a heavy influx of enterococcus bacteria following heavy rain, but an almost total absence of the bacteria two days later. “The south end should be closed to bathing for a time after heavy rains,” Mr. Wilkinson said then.
    When water quality standards for bathing beaches were upgraded, Ms. Shaw said, it became clear that, based on water testing results, the beach would be ineligible for county designation as a bathing beach, even if a lifeguard were to be assigned.
    In an e-mail sent to Ms. Shaw last summer, Nancy B. Pierson, a senior public health sanitarian in the Health Department’s Office of Ecology, said that because of indicators of fecal contamination in both streams adjacent to the bathing area, she did not recommend establishing a “permitted bathing beach off South Lake Drive in Montauk until something is done to rectify the contamination.”
    Last summer, the Concerned Citizens of Montauk offered to donate a sign that the town could install at South Lake, fully informing the public of the situation there.  “People are making decisions based on bad information, and they’re making decisions that are not without consequence,” Jeremy Samuelson, the organization’s executive director, said recently.
    “Should the town be more aggressive in making sure that the places that are commonly accepted as bathing beaches are safe enough to put their kids there? Yes,” he said. “What we know is that we have bacteria that is harmful that is coming through at alarming rates. Whether the problem is continual or only after rainfall — “I think we need science to tell us that,” Mr. Samuelson said. In the meantime, he said, “I think you spend 150 bucks on a sign.”
    Ms. Shaw, formerly a principal environmental analyst with the county’s Health Department, said guidelines recommend showering, or rinsing off, after wading in water that may be contaminated. “What the Health Department is concerned about is your head being immersed; your nose, your eyes, your mouth,” she said, adding that she supports the Lake Montauk committee’s suggestion that a no-swimming sign include information about the water quality. The sign could warn people to stay out of the water specifically after rainfall, Ms. Shaw said.
    It is not known whether there have actually been any documented health problems caused by a swim in Lake Montauk.