Peconic Estuary Program celebrates 25 years, but funds in doubt

Kevin McDonald remembers 1985, when brown tide was first detected in Peconic Bay. He was recently married, and he and his wife had purchased snorkels and face masks to explore the bay, where the water color was a “light-colored coffee” and it was hard to see six inches in front of their faces.

The brown tide disrupted the bay scallop and eelgrass populations and shocked a region where water recreation and shellfish harvesting are a way of life. It sparked a grassroots effort to have Peconic Bay named a federally designated estuary, and this summer marks 25 years since that goal was achieved. The designation resulted in changes that supporters say prevented water quality issues from worsening, although they say today there is still more work to be done.

But those efforts are at risk, as funding for the National Estuary Program is not included in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

“People were aghast that brown tide was occurring in Flanders Bay and parts of the Peconic and around Shelter Island,” said Mr. McDonald, chairman of the estuary program’s citizens advisory committee. It not only had an impact on the environment and quality of life, but also on the region’s perception of itself as a place of environmental quality and natural beauty, he said.

Baymen and North Fork residents, including Jeanne Marriner and Jean Lane, became the prime movers in an effort to obtain the federal designation. A consortium of civic, environmental and governmental groups formed the Bay Emergency Action Coalition to study the issue of water quality, and Ms. Marriner and Ms. Lane saw the need to get the federal government involved to pull in resources, according to Mr. McDonald, who was also involved in the movement at its start.

“They were heroes in public life that they saw this problem, saw its significance and wanted to act,” he said.

The U.S. Congress established the National Estuary Program in 1987, and Long Island Sound was a part of it, but not Peconic Bay. The effort to expand the program grew in the Suffolk County Legislature, with supporters such as Greg Blass, Tony Bullock and Fred Thiele, now a state assemblyman, and others, as well as state Sen. Ken LaValle.

Typically, the state would petition the federal government for that status, but the county took the lead, said Mr. Thiele (I-Sag Harbor).

“We had really viewed, to some degree, the bay as this infinite resource that would always be there for us without realizing that there were imminent threats on the horizon,” he said. “The brown tide really triggered a whole host of civic involvement as well as government involvement with regard to water quality.”

The county led a multi-year study that produced the Brown Tide Comprehensive Management Program, which examined how brown tide affected the water system, as well as its economic repercussions on the shellfishing industry.

In early September 1992, the federal Environmental Protection Agency gave the Peconic Bay system national federal protection as the 18th estuary to be added to the National Estuary Program. Then-congressman George Hochbrueckner called it “the best thing that could happen to the Peconic Bay” after years of lobbying for the designation, The Suffolk Times reported after the decision was announced.

The Peconic Estuary Program works to manage water quality through a comprehensive plan that all federally recognized estuaries are required to have, according to its director, Alison Branco.

Research showed that brown tide was caused primarily by nitrogen pollution. A total maximum daily load study, essentially a regulatory “pollution diet,” was used to determine how much nitrogen the system could handle and explore ways to reduce the effluent that produced it, Ms. Branco explained.

That process resulted in the recent upgrades to the Riverhead Town sewage treatment plant, a “significant move for the western part of the estuary,” she said. More nitrogen is removed from the waste stream, while 350,000 gallons of treated water are diverted from the Peconic River to irrigate the Indian Island Golf Course.

The golf course project had been in the works since 2004, when a pilot program ran, but tighter nitrogen standards led to the need for the entire treatment plant being upgraded, according to Riverhead sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel. He said the plant was just “a small part of the nitrogen puzzle,” as there are other sources to focus on.

“We sort of did all the low-hanging fruit first, not necessarily easy stuff, but the stuff where there was a real blueprint on how to do it,” Ms. Branco said. “Now we’re at the stage where we’re struggling to really address the hard ones like the septic tanks, and we’re just now starting to make good progress on that.”

Ms. Branco said the greatest accomplishment so far is that the system is not in worse shape now than in 1992. And over the last five years, the program has pointed to septic system effluent as the primary nitrogen load, Ms. Branco said.

“To be honest, especially in terms of nutrients, we’ve just kind of [been] fixing things around the edges,” she said. “ We haven’t really addressed the main problem yet, the septic nitrogen. Until we see that, we’re not going to see massive improvements in water quality.”

Part of what makes studying the septic system effects difficult is that groundwater travel time is slow, Ms. Branco noted. Much of the groundwater entering the estuary now could be 10 to 50 years old, so in addition to taking the time to get remedial programs in place, it takes a long time to see the impacts, she said.

Over the years, funding has always been a concern, because it’s never guaranteed, Ms. Branco said.

“This year, things are pretty tenuous,” she said. “Funding has been cut at various times over the years, but it never has been in danger of just being eliminated entirely, so this is a scary time for all of us.”

She added, however, that the estuary program has bipartisan support in Congress. Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has supported funding for the program and said Friday that he “feels very good” about where the effort is now in securing that funding.

“It’s an issue that transcends partisan politics,” he said, adding that there is unified support to see the funding set for the next fiscal year. Last year, Congress reauthorized the program with $26.5 million in appropriated funds for its 28 recognized estuaries. Over the past few years, the individual programs have received an average of $600,000 per year, Ms. Branco said.

At the local level, community preservation funds in East End towns, originally meant for land preservation, can now go directly to the Peconic Estuary Program, Mr. Thiele noted, and the county has embarked on a program to update its sanitary code and provide grants for septic system replacements to reduce nitrogen output.

At the state level, $2.5 billion was allocated this past April for clean water infrastructure and water quality protection across New York, including $75 million toward a septic system rebate program for updated systems in homes and small businesses.

Looking ahead, the Peconic Estuary Program is about to update its Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, Ms. Branco said. The original document makes no mention of climate change and, while brown tide has not appeared for some time, she said, it does not address a “whole rainbow” of other types of algal blooms.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of work to do to protect this estuary and so I’m hopeful that everyone in the Peconic region will get involved in the update to the CCMP and continue to help us take care of it,” she said.

While Ms. Branco, Mr. McDonald and others acknowledge there’s more to be done to improve the Peconic Estuary, the seeds have been sown to get it done.

[email protected]

Photo: Peconic Bay provides activities for fishermen and boaters, pictured Friday at Indian Island in Riverhead. Twenty-five years ago this summer, the body of water was named a federally designated estuary. But protection efforts are at risk, as funding for the National Estuary Program is not included in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)