Nature Notes: The Rising Waters

The record June rains supplied enough water to sufficiently raise the water table
A now-submerged island in the northwest part of Fort Pond in Montauk was so high and dry 90 years ago that the remnants of an upland forest grew there. Victoria Bustamante

   The water is rising. Well, not all over, but in many places locally. Chatfield’s Hole in East Hampton’s Northwest is well and good, having almost dried up last summer, as are all of the other ponds in that area — Staudinger’s, Crooked, Two Holes of Water, Scoy, Little Scoy. and Wood Duck Ponds. The quiet little pond that wants a name, just north of Swamp Road where it meets Two Holes of Water Road is so full that it now runneth over into Northwest Creek.
    All of these ponds are groundwater-fed and thus rely on rain to keep them full. The record June rains supplied enough water to sufficiently raise the water table and keep them all afloat. Daniel’s Hole on Daniel’s Hole Road north of the East Hampton Airport, on the other hand, is 100 percent covered with wetland vegetation and is almost dry. It is perched well above the water table and is completely dependent on rain and runoff for its water.
    Wolf’s Hole, another pond above the water table, between Two Holes of Water Road and Route 114 north of Stephen Hand’s Path is only slightly wetter than Daniel’s Hole. The Suffolk County Water Authority’s deep-water supply well a few hundred yards to the south depresses the water table in that area, so Wolf’s Hole requires a lot of rain to keep it wet.
    The 16 coastal ponds oriented north to south along the south shore of the South Fork, beginning on the west with Halsey Neck Pond east of Shinnecock Bay inlet and ending on the east with Hook Pond in East Hampton Village, are all groundwater ponds. They are all remnants of a long seawater bay that no longer exists. Mecox Bay, Sagg Pond, and Georgica Pond from west to east are annually opened to the ocean once or twice, become tidal, and thus are brackish.
    Inasmuch as the aquifer turns up along the south shore, the landlocked of the 16 ponds such as Wainscott Pond and Lake Agawam almost always have enough water to keep them full, and more often than not, too full.
    Springs has its Pussy’s Pond and Amagansett has Fresh Pond, both of which are partially tidal, while Napeague has lots of little wet spots called dune slacks in which cranberries and orchids flourish, as well as two fair-size seasonal ponds south of the highway just west of Hither Hills State Park. When these last two ponds fill up after heavy rains that elevate the water table, muskrats leave their burrows and build wickiups of reeds and other vegetation to live in and raise a family.
    The hamlet of Montauk has more freshwater wetlands and freshwater ponds than any other place on the South Fork. To start with, Fresh Pond, or Hidden Pond, in Hither Woods is, perhaps, the most oligotrophic pond — clear and sediment-less — in East Hampton Town. It is a water-table pond and has a nice complement of freshwater fish. Only a year ago, it had a beaver living in it that only a few people saw, but lots of people saw the trees gnawed through and fallen that the beaver left behind. Interestingly, the fish there are rather high in mercury, attributable to the atmospheric mercury gleaning ability of the pond’s surrounding wetlands.
    Indeed, up until the mid-1920s, Montauk was host to the largest freshwater pond on Long Island, Great Pond or Lake Montauk. Great Pond was always a couple of feet higher than sea level. When it got really full, it would overflow into ditches, such as the Oceanside drain, that ran south to the ocean through Ditch Plain. Now that it is tidal, it always drains north into Block Island Sound.
    The second largest pond on Long Island after Lake Ronkonkoma, Fort Pond used to be opened to Fort Pond Bay on occasion, but that all stopped when the Long Island Rail Road was put through to the north around 1900. Now when it builds up, as it did to record heights in March of 2010, the water is trapped and has no place to go. It is still very high at the moment.
    The island in the pond’s northwest sector was high and dry in 1923 when Norman Taylor published his “Vegetation of Montauk.” It was so high and dry that the island, once called Brushy Island and lately known as Turtle Island, was populated by a remnant of upland woods including an American basswood, the only one to be found in Montauk at the time. Later tupelos populated the island. Today the tupelos are all dead and the water level overtops the onetime forest floor.
    Since Fort Pond is a water-table pond, it will continue to get higher and higher in lockstep with the ever-rising sea level as freshwater is lighter than saltwater and is buoyed up by the underlying seawater. The same thing will happen to Star Island in Lake Montauk, but in a slightly less dramatic fashion.
    Big Reed Pond, east of Lake Montauk in Suffolk County parkland, may be the richest freshwater body on Long Island, botanically speaking. Its wet edges have five or more higher plant species that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere on Long Island.
    Oyster Pond to its east is an intermittent tidal pond, much like Georgica and Sagg Pond. High seas regularly overwash the bay mouth barrier separating the pond from Block Island Sound and after Sandy’s visit last fall, water levels remained very high right up until the beginning of summer. It has a watershed that stretches all the way south to the bluff tops of the ocean cliffs between Montauk Point and Deep Hollow Ranch, so it never suffers from a lack of water.
    Because Oyster Pond, once Lake Munchogue, is brackish, it is perfect for growing oysters in the same way that the Great South Bay was before its inlets were permanently opened to the ocean. What was perhaps the last Long Island population of the southern leopard frog (or the newly described Staten Island leopard frog) remained in the pond’s upper reaches until the 1990s.
    The South Fork will never suffer from a water shortage, be it fresh or salt. It will, however, suffer from a surfeit of water in the next half century and some of you readers will be around to see the consequences.