On The Deceptive Beauty of our Waterways


View of Stony Brook Harbor

By Cecil Hoge

The waterways within 10 miles of my house are supremely beautiful. Above you will see a picture of the back bay of Stony Brook Harbor. That waterway is very scenic, with intricate marsh pathways wending off in different directions. Because it is shallow, tidal and heavily reeded with hardy saltwater grasses sticking out of the water, it is not suited for big motorboats dragging towables or knee boarders or water skiers. It is therefore ideal for kayaks and standup paddleboards, especially if you wish to paddle over quiet, scenic waterways without having to hear the sound of outboard motors or negotiate the wake of big motorboats.

If you drive around Dyke Road to get to my house in Strong’s Neck and you happen to look to the right out at the bay as you go by, you will probably also be struck by the great beauty of that little bay, especially if you look at a section that appears to have no houses. In the summer, with the surrounding deciduous trees fully foliated in luscious green, the shimmering summer light sparkling off of tiny waves and gentle summer breeze flitting across the surface of the blue/green water, it can be a sight to behold. A wonderful aspect of the deciduous trees and foliage surrounding the bay is that the surrounding houses, which are so visible and prominent in winter when there are no leaves and no green foliage, almost disappear and blend in with the green trees and foliage.

With Summer Foliage One Would Almost Think Your Are In A Remote Wilderness

With Summer Foliage One Would Almost Think You Are In A Remote Wilderness

If, however, you drive on the same Dyke Road to my house and you look out over the same bay and the tide happens to be low (it empties completely twice a day for four hours at a time), you may notice something else that you may wonder at. And that will be a green cover to the mud bottom of the bay. This too is scenic in its own way and no doubt many an onlooker is equally at ease with that visage. This is green algae growing on the bottom of the bay.

View from my house at low tide

View from my house at low tide – the green algae extends to the other side of the bay

And if,  you paddle or row on a daily basis as I do, you will note that the appearance of the water changes daily and that is often quite different than the view from afar. I happen to live on a small cove that is at the end of Little Bay. As such, it is the last place that the tide and water arrive. Because of this, much of what is laying on the surface of the bay is picked and pushed into my tiny cove. This view, up close, can be unsettling. Often one sees a kind of oily brown scum covering the surface of the water with brown, suspicious glutinous spots and large green blobs of algae.

And when I go paddling, I often find the arc of my paddle or oars being slowed by globs of algae. This was not always the case. When I first start paddling or rowing on my little bay, I did not see algae or hit algae with my paddle or oar. Thirty years ago the waters were clear of algae and while not crystal clear, they were usually clean enough to see the bottom of the bay, even when the 7 to 9 foot tide was fully in.

Another difference that I have noticed over the last 30 years is the steady decline in the number of fish, crabs and minnows that I see each time I go for a paddle or a row. Years ago, the bay I am on was teeming with fish, crabs and minnows. In the spring, male horseshoe crabs would appear, mate with female horseshoe crabs and then die, as is their fate, after mating. This often meant that the bay had floating corpses of horseshoe crabs. And almost always when you went in shallow areas of our bay, you would see living horseshoe crabs working their way over the bottom.

Striped bass would also come into our bay in May and June and sometimes you would see them jumping and splashing everywhere in the bay. In the summer, if you were paddling you would see blue shell crabs swimming in front and behind you. In the late summer, the bay would become crowded with snappers (baby bluefish), jumping and splashing everywhere in the bay. Today none of that happens, although I will admit to seeing a few horseshoe crabs every now and then.

In my cove, in the spring and summer, turtles come in and you can see their heads sticking just above the water. You can hear them plopping their bodies off of the dock or a log into the water when I arrive. And in truth, I have to admit the turtles do show up and they have been present even this summer. By the way, in honor of these turtles, I have named my house Turtle Cove. So not all is in decline.

This summer (2016), I have noticed something new that I do not remember ever seeing. And that is dark reddish brown areas of water as I paddle along. These areas can be quite 75 by 100 feet and they seem to be in my bay, Little Bay, and in Setauket Bay. The areas of reddish brown water appear as you paddle along, with the water turning from a murky dark blue to a reddish dark brown. It is as if you have just paddled across a different waterway where the color of the water is strikingly different. I don’t know what causes this, but I am pretty sure it is not natural. These areas seem to be in different parts of the two bays, so as you paddle along, you find yourself paddling in water that turns from muddy blue to muddy, dark reddish brown. Whatever it is, I do not think it is a sign of healthy bay water.

If you read some of the histories of Long Island, you will find references to flocks of birds flying overhead and darkening the sky for 20 and 30 minutes at a time, to the extent it almost becomes pitch black outside on a sunny day. We still are blessed with many birds…swans, Canada geese, great white herons, great blue herons, egrets, kingfish, loons, ducks and cormorants line the four bays of Port Jefferson Harbor and if they are not there in their previous numbers, they are still there in all parts of the bay. And no doubt they would not be present if there were not some fish and some vegetation to feed on.

There was a local historian named Kate Strong who was alive when we first moved to Strong’s Neck and she wrote from 1937 to 1976 a series of stories about Long Island called Tales of Old Long Island. I read some of those tales and I remember one story where the local residents were complaining about the terrible swimming conditions in Setauket Bay. Apparently, Setauket Bay and the other bays forming Port Jefferson Harbor were infested with lobsters. Not only were these creatures a severe danger to the toes and fingers of local residents, but apparently these creatures served no useful purpose other than being chopped up and used as fish bait. Apparently, the habit of cooking lobsters and considering them to be a delicacy was to take place in the future.

Today our bays are no longer infested with useless lobsters. Each of the last ten years has brought more vegetation, more algae and more murkiness to my little cove and to the interconnected bays of Port Jefferson Harbor. And in each of the last years, I have seen less fish, less crabs and no lobsters. Part of this may be due to a simple fact of declining visibility. Today the waters of our bays are far murkier than they once were. Often when paddling or rowing it is impossible to see my paddle or oar blade even when it just 5″ or 10″ below the surface of the water.

Look closely and you may see my oar just below the surface of the water - It is almost a good day.

Look closely and you may see my oar just below the surface of the water – It is almost a good day.

The waters that lead up to my house were never truly clear and pristine as long as I have lived here. The complex of bays that form Port Jefferson Harbor consists of Conscience Bay, Port Jefferson Bay, Setauket Bay and Little Bay, the bay that my house is situated on. These bays have always been dirtier than the waters in Long Island Sound, just outside the harbor and its connected bays. Over 30 years ago, it was reported that Stony Brook University was dumping raw sewage directly into Port Jefferson Bay and no doubt this fact has continually compromised the quality of the water.

It is my understanding that this sewage is now treated and that treated sewage, not raw sewage, is being pumped into Port Jefferson Harbor. Perhaps, this is creating the reddish brown areas that I am came across recently. It is also my understanding that Stony Brook University had planned to run the treated sewage pipe out into Long Island Sound so sewage, treated or untreated, was being dumped directly into Long Island Sound and not being dumped directly into Port Jefferson Harbor. As far as I know, this has not been done and treated sewage from Stony Brook University is still being pumped daily into Port Jefferson Harbor.

Further complicating the water quality situation of the Port Jefferson waterways is the presence of an oil burning electrical plant in Port Jefferson Harbor. This electrical plant is a large source of air-borne pollution, emitting thousands of tons of soot and chemicals each year into the air according to an article in a local newspaper that appeared some years ago. No doubt some of the soot, the gases and the chemical particles coming from the plant fall back down onto the houses and into the waterways surrounding the Port Jefferson/Setauket area. So, it is fair to say, that I have always known that our waterways were tainted and comprised for at least the last 30 years.

That said, the water quality of our bays has gotten progressively worse despite persistent reports in the local press that it would soon get far better. About 10 years ago, widespread algae has begun to appear. First in little and far between clumps and later in denser and heavier clumps all throughout the 4 bays that comprise Port Jefferson Harbor. As mentioned, this most conspicuously evident at low tide in my bay when you can clearly see green algae growth covering most of the bay. In the spring and early summer, algae gathers in big clumps and floats on the surface of bay. As the summer continues and the various Mastercrafts and other high power ski boats make their rounds around Little Bay, the dense clumps of algae tend to get chopped up into smaller pieces and are dispersed throughout the four bays. Each spring, despite being chopped into little bits by large boats used to tow water skiers, tubers and kneeboarders, the clumps of algae seem to get bigger and denser and spread farther throughout the bays.

I do not know if algae is as great a problem in Stony Brook and Mt. Sinai harbors. Certainly, I can see evidence of algae in these bays at low tide times. These two harbors are just a few miles east and west of Port Jefferson Harbor. My belief is that Stony Brook and Mt. Sinai waterways are basically cleaner and healthier waterways. This is probably because there are fewer houses surrounding those waterways, because they do not have treated sewage being dumped into them and because they have less pollution from the National Grid electrical plant in Port Jefferson. All of that said, all the waterways surrounding Long Island Sound, whether on Long Island or in Connecticut, suffer from various forms of pollution and the two culprits that I just pointed out are by no means a complete list of all the problems inflicting damage on the water quality of my local bays.

When the press writes about the problem of pollution of Long Island waterways, they like to blame one or two causes, although generally they do not usually mention the two causes I just mentioned above. A very popular culprit to blame these days is nitrates coming from our cesspools. I have no doubt this is also one of the contributing causes of pollution in our waterways. Recently, I read an article in a local paper citing the apparent fact there are some 432,000 cesspools in Suffolk County alone. The paper was suggesting that all the cesspools need to be rebuilt so nitrates do not seep into the ground. And I have no doubt rebuilding and replacing all the cesspools in Suffolk County if properly outfitted with devices to eliminate nitrates would help reduce nitrates. The paper said this could be done for a cost of about $8,500,000,000.

Apparently, some of our local legislators are very enthusiast about this solution and I have no doubt why. Eight and half billion dollars is a pretty good contract for somebody and I am guessing it might allow a buck or two to come back to some people who might be influential in  requiring that all cesspools in Suffolk County to be rebuilt and replaced. And while I have no doubt this would prove to be some very good business for some people, I am guessing that it will not solve the total problem of pollution in our waterways. For one thing, replacing all the cesspools in Suffolk County would not reduce the pollution from Stony Brook University dumping treated sewage into Port Jefferson Harbor or from soot and chemicals falling from the sky from the Port Jefferson Electrical plant.

And even if you solved all three of these problems, there are other causes also contributing to the pollution of our waterways. I will cite a few other factors contributing to the problem of pollution…fertilizer and insecticides from homes and farms, gas and oils from automobiles driving down our roads, oil and gas seeping from gas stations and oil storage facilities into the ground water, various forms of pollution seeping into our ground water from our local factories and local businesses. It is not necessary to name names, whether it be bus companies parking buses, some of which drip oil and gas onto the parking lot, whether it be certain chemical companies producing some by products that somehow get into the groundwater, the fact is that eventually any and all chemicals that get dumped onto or fall onto the ground flow into our ponds, our lakes, our rivers, our bays and, eventually, into our ocean.

In short, I think a good case could made that there are dozens, if not hundreds of sources of pollution affecting our waterways. And in truth, this is only a natural effect of putting several million people on an island and letting them go about their business in all the ways that people go about there business.

This the Melville Mill Pond in Setauket - once upon a time is was clear of algae. In the last two years it has become quite literally clogged with algae.

This the Melville Mill Pond in Setauket – once upon a time it was clear of algae. In the last two years it has become quite literally clogged with algae. Shall we change the name to Green Pond?

I would like to cite another local example of what is happening to our waterways. Above you will see what used to be called the Melville Mill Pond. As you can see, it is now completely covered with a bright green algae. In a way, it is still beautiful. The DayGlo green color of the algae blends nicely with the green foliage and the blue sky, so you might even argue that it is still beautiful and scenic.

What I think is kind of strange is that this is a park that people come to walk around and take pictures of each other posing by this pond. In the summer, when many weddings take place, you will see wedding parties, brides and grooms, posing by this little pond, now brightly colored with an almost luminous DayGlo green color. I wonder what they think? Do they think this is what a pond is supposed look like? Do they remember seeing this pond when it was not covered with bright green algae? Surely some of the older people must remember what it originally looked like when swans and ducks and herons went there, when local fisherman used to try their luck fishing for trout and other freshwater fish that used to be in the pond.

I would guess that whatever fish there used to be there are now gone and this little waterway now officially close to dead.

If you go to the website for the Frank Melville Memorial Park, there will mention of the fact that the pond is dying and choked with algae. According to the website, a group of experts has been appointed and they are studying the problem. In the meantime, there is an opportunity to become a friend of the park on Facebook. Well, I hope the experts come to a conclusion soon because I think time is not our their side. I would modestly suggest that a simple, but drastic solution to this problem, would to get some people in a few small boats and literally rake off the algae once or twice a year. I am no expert, but I guessing this drastic solution would alleviate the problem while the experts debate on the best long-term solution to the problem.

I cite these examples of my bay and the local pond because it is clear to me that our waterways are in deep trouble. At the same time, it is also clear to me that not many people are concerned about this problem – I cite the fact of people walking around Melville Pond Park as an example of that. Surely some of the people know what they are looking at.

And I suppose there are many good reasons why this is not a priority in all our lives. Most of us have enough difficulty in just in surviving…getting by day by day, meeting our bills, trying to get the kids into good schools, trying to pay our mortgages and taxes. And while I may point out these problems with our waterways, I cannot in truth say that I am doing anything myself to resolve them. And there is one last point, which is the point I made at the beginning of this article, when we drive around the North Shore in summer, everything is green and scenic, and even ponds clogged with algae look kind of beautiful in there own way.

The reason I bring up this issue is that while it is obviously a local problem here on Long Island, I believe it is also a problem all across this country. Recently, I returned from Orlando, Florida. This year, Florida suffered from some severe algae and outbreaks of red and brown tides n both the east and west coast of Florida. Coming into Orlando by air, one can see the green algae covering lakes and ponds in and around Orlando. This is clearly visible by air. In speaking to some fishermen who were recently fishing on the Gulf Coast side of Florida, they described the red tide that was plaguing that coast as a thick, poisonous goo that covered the bay waters and made fishing nearly impossible. Moreover, it was emitting a toxic gas that actually stung the eyes and made it hard to breath.

It really does not matter what part of the country you go to, whether it be an inland pond or lake, a white water river, a large reservoir, many parts of the country, our waterways suffer to a greater or lesser degree reduced water quality and increased forms of pollution. In many cases, this has had a dramatic effect on the fish stocks in the affected waterways. I mention this because fish is a staple food in the human diet. We are likely to miss it, if it is no longer available.

So the big question comes is what do we do about this situation? Do we ignore it or do we wait for someone to solve this problem or do we allow some politician to require the replacement of all our cesspools, even though that will solve only one part of the real problem?

I would like to mention that while I can visibly see the deterioration of our waterways and while I can point to many visible and tangible evidences of the decline of our waterways, I do not believe this situation is unsolvable or hopeless. There are, in fact, many instances where we have turned around fish declines and reduced greatly the pollution facing some waterways. I would like mention a few notable cases. In the Northeast, where ten years ago the striped bass population had declined severely, by instituting a cap on the number of fish that can be harvested per angler and enacting rules against dumping into the oceans and Long Island Sound, the striped bass population has come back in a big way and the fishery is far healthier than it has been in the last 30 years.

In another rather curious example of how waterways and fisheries can come back, in Lake Erie and Ontario where the waters had suffered from chemicals been dumped into these lakes, where algae had become common and where there was great concern that zebra clams would get into the waterways and clog up the harbors and halt the workings of dams and electrical plants, the zebra clams did succeed in getting the waterways and did expand and become endemic throughout both lakes. What was the result: strangely those two lakes became far cleaner and the fish populations, which had been in severe decline, came back and began to flourish once again. Why? Because it turns out that zebra clams filter water faster than almost any kind of shellfish and where their populations explode, their ability to clean the water also explodes. And today, the fishing is better in those two lakes than it has been in the last forty years and the lakes are far cleaner. Go figure.

In the Delaware River, where that river had been the dumping ground of various chemical and industrial factories built up along the river, new environmental rules greatly reduced the number and quantity of chemicals dumped into that river and today many parts of Deleware River are far cleaner than they have been in over 50 years. In fact, trout fishing, which had been almost eliminated in parts of the Delaware, is today also better than it has been in 50 years in many areas.

The lesson in citing these examples is that waterways can get better, just as they can get worse, fisheries can get better, just as they can collapse, new species can alter and improve the health of a waterway, just as some species or life forms, such as algae, can destroy a waterway.

My belief is, if we are to make real progress about this problem, we will have to delevop dozens and possibly hundreds of solutions to it, not just one or two. I do not think there is one silver bullet that will solve all the problems facing our waterways, but I do think a wide variety of different approaches and solutions can, when taken together, greatly improve these problems. I would also like to say that whatever the solutions they will have to be applied on a local bay by bay, river by river, pond by pond, waterway by waterway basis. Why? Because each waterway is different and each waterway may have to be addressed differently to solve their specific problems.

I would like to suggest some partial solutions to the waterways of Port Jefferson Harbor. Certainly, I think we will need to restrict and reduce the amount of chemicals being dumped into those waterways. In a number of cases, this has already been done, with rules    requiring 4-stroke motors and rules outlawing and banning certain chemicals. I am guessing that more has to be done in a variety of ways. New types of chemicals for washing clothes, for cleaning floors, for fertilizing gardens and farms, for killing insects have to be developed that are less toxic and less harmful to the environment.

And yes, better cesspools have to developed that reduce the seepage of all the chemicals we put into waters, whether from our homes, our factories or from our farms. I doubt it is practical or possible to mandate the replacement of all our cesspools, but it is probably practical to mandate that new cesspools have new controls on them and as old cesspools have to be replaced, to replace them with more efficient cesspools that better contain all waste materials we put into them.

I think towns surrounding the bays of Port Jefferson, should take an active role in re-introducing oysters and clams and other shellfish that can clean our waterways. The fact that clams and oysters and other shellfish naturally filter and cleanse our waters should be artificially stimulated, meaning we need active programs that plant and tend to the introduction and cultivation of shellfish in our waterways. I would like to cite the fact that at one time the Great South Bay provided 75% of all the clams served in restaurants in America. I would like to cite the fact that during the 1800s and the early 1900s there were over 10,000 oyster bars in New York City alone. Simply reintroducing the shellfish that were in our bays and waterways could go a long way to cleaning up our waterways.

Unfortunately, I believe it probably goes beyond just planting oyster and clam seed beds. Those oysters and clams will have to be tended to and active aquaculture farms will need to be set up. This probably means setting aside in our waterways areas where this is actively done and setting up a system to tend and monitor the development of shellfish.

I would like to suggest a controversial concept which I think could help the specific waterways of Port Jefferson. At the present time, these waterways have only one inlet to Long Island Sound, I think if one or two additional inlets were created it would allow the waterways of Port Jefferson Harbor to better clean themselves. I am sure that there will be homeowners who will be concerned that these same inlets could let in more water during hurricanes and storms. Probably so, but I believe in the long run it would be healthier for our waterways of Port Jefferson to have two or three inlets, rather than just one.

Sometimes, this kind of solution is provided by Mother Nature herself. On the South Shore of Long Island, a new inlet was opened up a few years ago, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. In the case of Port Jefferson Harbor, I think it would take a really large and violent hurricane. I would prefer a man made solution.

I would like to suggest another controversial idea that could better clean the four bays that comprise Port Jefferson Harbor. At present, Strong’s Neck is a peninsula of land sticking out between Little Bay and Conscience Bay. If a water passageway was cut through from Little Bay to Conscience Bay and a small bridge was built to allow homeowners to get to their homes on Strong’s Neck, I believe the both Little Bay and Conscience Bay could better clean themselves and all the waterways of Port Jefferson Harbor would be cleaner and healthier.

I also think think selective dredging could help our waterways to better better clean themselves and better allow clams, oysters, crabs and fish to thrive in our waterways. Dredging, of course, is a dirty word and no doubt the process of dredging poses potential harm to the waterways it is being done in. An important concern is where the dredged material is being dumped. At this moment, the State of New York is threatening to sue the State for Connecticutt because Connecticutt wants to dredge its harbors and rivers and dump the dredged material into Long Island Sound for the next 30 years. It is believed, probably correctly, that if dredged materials were dumped into Long Island Sound for the next 30 years, it would do great harm to Long Island Sound.

I do not know what the proper solution to the dredging problem is, but it seems clear that all of our waterways tend to silt up over time and these silt deposits also tend to contain chemicals of all kinds. I am thinking some creative solution needs to be brought to this problem, such as taking the dredged material and creating some kind new kind of cement with it. Or maybe we can dump some of the dredged material on certain selected landfill  areas and create a new ski resort or a water park or something else unique and beneficial.

In this vein, I would like to turn to the problem of algae. I understand that in France they are making certain kinds perfume from algae. I do not know what is in our algae, but I am guessing it is useful for something. Maybe, it can be made into a new kind of less toxic fertilizer, maybe it can be used to make a new kind of concrete, maybe it can be made into a new kind of super food. I do not know, but I am guessing it can be used and made into something.

If so, then algae could be harvested once or twice a year and the gathered material made into something useful and then maybe our waterways would clearer and the green pond that I showed picture of might become a clear and open pond teaming with fish and frogs and turtles and and birds and other wildlife once again. I suppose reading this, it might seem like a wild and impossible idea, but algae is a form of life and I think we may be better able to re-purpose it than to just let it cover our pond, lakes and bays.

You might ask why am I taking the trouble to make what may seem like rediculous suggestions. I am thinking we live on an island. I am thinking in the not so distant past we have lost electrical power for various periods of time, in storms, in blackouts, in hurricanes. In the past, we have never lost power for much more than two weeks, but as little as three years ago, we all saw what damage a storm like Sandy could do. And while that storm did quite a bit of damage, it should also be recognized that a full blown hurricane, if it was ever to hit us head-on on an incoming tide might do a great deal more damage.

And of course, that is only one threat we might face in the future. We all remember when the World Trade Center buildings came down. We all have heard of the danger of a dirty bombs. What if, for example, Long Island lost power and access by car and truck to Long Island was not possible for an extended period. What would happen? There are, at last count, something over 3,000,000 people on Long Island. What if all 3,000,000 people had no power, not for a few days, but for a few months? What if there was no access on or off Long Island for an extended period of time?

My guess is that people might really miss the fish, the shellfish, the crabs that they are already missing. At that time, they may wish they paid a little more attention to the deceptive beauty of our waterways and had done something to restore the health of the fisheries that used to surround us.

UPDATE 9/22/16 – “State to fund Setauket Harbor Improvements”

That is the headline from a September article in the The Village Times Herald. This article goes on to relate that the Cornell Cooperative Extension had just done a study of Setauket Harbor and had “turned up troubling results.” The article went on to quote Laurie Vetere, chairwoman of for the Setauket Harbor Task Force “that Setauket Harbor has significant water quality issues caused by road runoff from rain water flooding into the harbor after storms.”

This was interesting and encouraging to me since it named a new obvious culprit – runoff of chemicals from storm water – and it did not say the cesspools was the sole culprit, although they obviously contribute to the overall problem.

The article went on to say that Setauket Harbor had secured a one million dollar grant from New York State, which is to be divided three ways:

1. Half of the one million dollars will go to the improvement of dock.

2. Forty percent ($400,000) would be used on storm water improvements.

3. The remaining $100,000 will be used to remove silt that has accumulated in the harbor and it water sources.

It will be fascinating to find out:

1. If this money actually gets turned over for use in Setauket Harbor.

2. What specifically the one million dollars accomplishes.

In any case, it is an interesting development and I hope that it accomplishes some actual good results. I would question what $500,000 improvement to the Setauket Harbor Dock will accomplish? I find it hard to believe that will actually improve the water quality of Setauket Harbor. Perhaps, I am missing something? I would also like to know what specifically will be done “on storm water improvements.” I am curious – will there be some sophisticated filtration system set up on all the storm water drains leading into Setauket Harbor? If so, how will these be maintained? One would guess that any filtration system could be become clogged. Finally, it would interesting to know what happens to the $100,000 of silt that is dredged up. Where will it go?

A last point to this hopeful new development is to mention again that Setauket Bay is only one of four bays comprising the Port Jefferson waterways. That leads me to ask two last questions – will the one million planned to be spent on Setauket Harbor, benefit the three other bays directly connected to it? Or will any improvements resulting from the one million dollar investment be overwhelmed by storm water chemicals and other forms of pollution flowing directly from other three bays flowing directly into Setauket Harbor?

Inquiring minds want to know.

About Cecil Hoge

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