County approves $1 million Indian Island restoration plan

The area that will be restored at Indian Island County Park. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
The area that will be restored at Indian Island County Park. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Suffolk County is moving forward with a million-dollar plan to restore seven acres of land at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead that once served as a dumping ground for the county’s dredging projects. The measure is expected to improve the surrounding ecosystem by re-opening proper tidal flow to the area. 

From the 1940s to the 1970s, the area, which was once a wetland, was where the county dumped spoils that were clogging area waterways. Eventually, buildup at Indian Island piled up to the point that the seven acres no longer resembled a wetland but an elevated marsh.

Restoration of the land has been targeted by the county for a few years and is on the Peconic Estuary Program’s priority list.

“This has been bubbling on the stove for quite some time,” said county Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue).

The project is expected to cost $1.08 million. Of that, $788,000 will be reimbursed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and $300,000 has been allocated from the county’s quarter-percent tax earmarked for preserving drinking water quality in Suffolk County.

Long Island Pine Barrens president Dick Amper, who has twice taken the county to court over what he perceived as the misappropriation of those funds, said this week that using those monies for this project will benefit Long Island’s aquifer.

“This particular use will contribute to water quality, principally because water bodies function better and improve when they’re contaminated if you can increase the circulation of water due to the flushing of tidal systems,” Mr. Amper said. “So by clearing obstructions — that is, buildups of sediments in the creek — the water quality there and in the Peconic Bay can be expected to improve.”

But questions about the project remain.

For instance, relocating the spoils accounts for much of the cost. To save money, Mr. Krupski said he could cut the cost of the project by about a third if the material is simply moved around on the site. The county’s Council on Environmental Quality said the plan could move forward if the material isn’t moved off-site, he said.

“The contaminated material is at a low level — the same contamination as the sediment at the creek bottom,” Mr. Krupski said. “So if we can recreate as much of the marsh as we can, but leave the dredged spoil on site, that would save significant costs to the whole project.”

He proposed sending some of the state funds back to Albany and saving some of the $300,000 the county is investing in the project and taking that route. Which path the county decides to take, however, remains uncertain. Mr. Krupski said the planning department will likely make the final decision, although the project also involves the department of public works, vector control and the county health department.

In addition, it remains unclear at this point exactly how the county will engineer the tidal flushing. The seven-acre area eyed for restoration is currently separated by a car trail that follows the coastline, so either culverts must be installed connecting the restored area to Terrys Creek, or bridges must be constructed along the trail to allow water to get in and out.

Alison Branco, director of the nonprofit Peconic Estuary Program, said the area has  a “pretty degraded system in there right now.”

Restoring it to health will require less mosquito spraying by the county, she said, as proper flushing will result in less stagnant water — breeding grounds for mosquito larvae.

Ms. Branco said the project still requires DEC approval. County legislators approved funding for the plans on Tuesday.

[email protected]