- Whether a major nor'easter blows across the island or a series of minor winter storms consistently pound against the bays, every year the shoals in East Hampton's harbors and bays shift with the weather, causing the potential for dangerous shallows and unnavigable channels.
The Suffolk County Department of Public Works engages in maintenance dredging of important inlets and channels in East Hampton periodically, however the county has only conducted three dredging projects since 1996, leaving some town officials thinking it may be better to take matters into their own hands.
East Hampton Town Trustee Norman Edwards, with assistance from current
and former town trustees, compiled a four-year plan to fix the town's
waterways with a town-owned dredge.
Norman Edwards described his dreams of a town-owned dredge as his passion in life. As an East Hampton Town Trustee, Edwards has been an ardent advocate for purchasing the machinery and fixing the many navigation and flushing problems that plague East Hampton's waterways. He, along with William Mott, Billy Vorpahl, Francis Bock and John Gosman, have devised a four-year cycle in which to remedy the town's shoaling ills, and they say it will only cost the Town $250,000.
When the brown tide nearly wiped out the East End's shellfish stock in the 1980s, it took with it the entire ecosystem, destroying eelgrass beds and other aquatic vegetation that maintained a sustainable aquaculture. The Town Trustees, charged as the guardians of East Hampton's beaches and waterways, are in the midst of a revegetation campaign in an effort to breathe life back into the harbors and bays. Replanting of experimental eelgrass beds has shown some marked progress so far, however clogged channels have led to limited flushing and advancing stagnant, contaminated waters.
Edward's dredge proposal highlights the most severe problem areas in the town and sets up a four-year time table in which a town-owned dredge could maintain navigation routes and improve water quality over time.
Carving Out The Plan
While dredge projects are high on the town's priority list, East Hampton is currently struggling through a $15 million budget deficit and faltering revenue streams, making the purchase of an expensive piece of equipment an unpopular proposal. According to the dredge plan, the town could own the necessary equipment to tackle all of the proposed projects with an initial investment of $250,000 and a subsequent annual cost of $15,000 in labor, plus the added expense of maintaining the equipment.
While the inlet and main channel in Three Mile Harbor are maintained
periodically by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, last
dredged in 1999, the county has denied the town's requests to repair
the secondary western channel.
The dredging duties will be added to those of the town's Department of Harbors and Docks, under the direction of Chief Harbormaster Ed Michels, who maintained that his crews should be able to handle the extra work, though they may need to hire one additional part-time individual. The supply company would provide training to Harbors and Docks employees during the first dredge season, which runs from October to January, and afterward a consistent dredge crew could be assembled. The crew would not be dedicated solely to dredging projects, Michels explained, rather they would be adding another skill to the versatile repertoire of the Marine Maintenance Crew, who are already well-versed in many aspects of marine construction and repairs.
In order to achieve all of the goals of the dredge plan, the Marine Maintenance Crew would require a 55-foot to 60-foot swinging ladder hydraulic suction dredge, with a minimum digging depth of two feet and a maximum of 15 feet. The report calls for a GPS positioning system and surveying software that will allow for the precision cutting of channels and a 1,250-foot discharge pipe to redirect the dredge material into areas that need to be rebuilt. The 25-ton vessel, with the works, is estimated at approximately $500,000, however Edwards has discovered a grant from New York State which can be utilized for up to half that cost.
Edwards also contends that funding may be available for the continual maintenance of the equipment from Suffolk County, as the Department of Public Works would save approximately $200,000 annually by not having to dredge East Hampton's waterways more than twice a decade, according to his figures. If the town were to secure $100,000 a year from the county, the town would be able to operate and maintain the dredge at little to no cost to the municipality.
Where To Begin
The report described a regular dredging cycle that tended to each of the town's seven major waterways at least once every three to four years. The plan's first priority is Napeague Harbor, though the western channel has provided sufficient drainage for the harbor, allowing the Napeague Bay tide to flush the storm run-off and easy navigation in and out of Lazy Point.
Winter storms push loose sediment down shore, known as littoral or longshore drift, frequently depositing sand and silt in problematic areas, obstructing navigation and limiting flushing in areas like Louse Point, pictured above. Photo by Aaron Boyd
However the East Channel, the natural channel according to the report, is plagued with a giant mud flat that extends off the northern tip of Hicks Island leaving only 200 yards of navigable channel through the eastern passage. The East Channel was last dredged in 1989 and was closed completely for a time in the winter of 2006-2007.
Opening the 80-yard channel will connect the deepest waters of Napeague Harbor with the deeper waters of the bay. By restoring the channel, the proposal suggests that finfish and flounder will have a better route to enter the harbor and spawn, an important step in restoring the frail ecosystem. The area is currently used as a nursery for researching winter flounder, a staple of East Hampton's fishing industry, and has shown early signs of rebounding eelgrass beds.
The main channel to the south of Accabonac Harbor required excavation on an
annual basis, however the town's equipment can only reach 90 feet from the mainland.
A town-owned dredge would allow for more extensive maintenance.
Dredging the channel would replace 26,000 cubic yards of loose sand and stone along the beaches of Goff Point, Hicks Island and Lazy Point over a two month period, which the report suggested as a perfect training project for the crew.
Fresh Pond in Amagansett is a smaller body of water fed by a fresh water wetland to the west and a narrow inlet to the east that accepts the tidal flow. Flow through the inlet is clogged and sluggish, restricting the tidal flushing of run-off from the nearby upland residential areas. The resulting decline in water quality led to the closure of the shellfish hatchery in 1985 and it has remained closed since.
The inlet was prevented from closing completely in 2003 and a jetty was constructed on the north side in order to limit the amount of sediment deposited by the littoral drift off the western shores of the bay, however the channel is only one foot deep at mean low tide and the pond has maintained an elevated coliform count year-round for over 20 years as a result.
There has already been a permit issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to dredge the channel of 4,000 cubic yards of sand and rock which could be spread along the beaches of Fresh Pond Landing as part of the Napeague Harbor project. The dredge plan asserts that the only way to maintain the water quality of the pond at a healthy level is to dredge the channel every three to four years, which would require a swinging ladder suction dredge to maneuver around the narrow channel's sharp bend.
Northwest Creek is currently number 76 on Suffolk County's top
100 priority list for dredge projects, and when the county has
dredged the waterway in the past they have neglected the town's
requests to dig out the western shore.
While the report proposed Napeague as the best area for the rookie dredge crew to begin, Accabonac Harbor is arguably in the worst condition of the seven waterways. The harbor itself is an important part of East Hampton's commercial shellfish industry and the southern channel acts as a main causeway for many local baymen who fish in Gardiners Bay.
A culvert opened in the northern portion of the harbor in 2005 alleviated some of the pressure on the local ecosystem, temporarily doubling marine populations, however the southern channel requires annual excavation to maintain flow. However, the current town-owned equipment can only reach 90 feet from Louse and Gerard Points. Half of the waterway is closed to shellfishing seasonally and sometimes year-round due to high bacteria counts and the diminution of eels grass beds that once covered half of the harbor which have dwindled to less than .1 percent of 1999 levels.
Opening the southern channel 100 feet wide, six feet deep should adequately serve the needs of the bay fishermen and maintain a cleansing flow through the estuary. The channel is currently four feet deep at mean low tide and the report estimates the removal of 35,000 cubic yards of sand, which could be deposited on the beaches along Gerard Drive, and would sufficiently clear the inlet. The dredging of the southern channel would take approximately two months, which, if weather permits, would allow the town to finish both the Napeague and Accabonac projects in the first year.
Getting It Done Right, Right Away
Two of the town's seven major waterways are unlikely to get much needed attention if the town does not have access to their own dredge. Northwest Creek, for instance, has a .125 square-mile mud flat to the southeast of the inlet, restricting the tidal flow to the bottom 75 percent of the waterway. Water depth at mean low tide over the flat is only one foot and the channel that flows to the west of shoaling only retains a depth of four feet at low tide. Without adequate flushing, shellfish harvesting in Northwest Creek can only occur between Dec. 15 and April 1, and then only if there has been less than .45 inches of rain on any one day. In 2006, eight dolphins were found dead in the waterway after entering to chase baitfish and became trapped, as the shoaling across the entrance blocked their way.
Georgica Pond in Wainscott is flushed twice a year, however
deepening the pond could prevent septic leaching and provide a
larger body of water for contaminants to dissolve.
Northwest Creek is currently rated number 76 on Suffolk County's top 100 priority dredge list and in previous years the county has only dug out the entrance to the channel and not further south along the western shore. If the town were to own a dredge, they would be able to remove 50,000 cubic yards of silt and sand in two months' time, leaving the silt in the adjacent marsh areas and the sand on the County Park Beach.
Georgica Pond could also benefit from regular dredging. The Wainscott pond is home, or second home, to some of the most extensive estates on Long Island and the pond is used for recreation by homeowners and the general public alike.
The pond is opened to the sea twice a year in order to flush out the contaminated waters and to allow temporary passage for certain fish and eels. However this semi-annual maintenance is not enough to cleanse the pond from the massive amount of residential run-off and septic systems built on the pond side of properties. Heavy rains bring high levels of bacterial coliforms and raise water levels above sewage systems, leading to leaching and further contamination.
The report contends that regular maintenance dredging will deepen the pond, keeping water levels below the septic line and maintaining a larger body of water to absorb the effects of run-off. The East Hampton Department of Natural Resources acquired a permit from the DEC to remove 12,000 cubic yards from the southwest shoal, however the dredge report asserts that the yardage limit should be increased to 25,000, to be replaced along Georgica's beachfront, in the areas hardest hit by the littoral drift.
Helpful To Everyone
With a dredge of their own, the Town of East Hampton would also be able to clean up the harbors at popular Three Mile Harbor and Lake Montauk. Both sites are currently maintained by Suffolk County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, respectively, however those regular dredge projects, according to Edwards' findings, neglect certain areas within the harbors that need to be dug out.
The inlet to Lake Montauk is dredged regularly by the Army
Corps of Engineers, as the harbor is a federally managed
waterway, yet with their own dredge the town would be able
to clean up problem areas around Star Island and West
The main channel of Three Mile Harbor was last dredged in 1999, and was scheduled for another county job this year, however the county denied the town's requests to dredge secondary Goose Channel, which flows west around Dayton's Island, and also refused to remove sediment deposits in the backwaters of Folkstone and Hands Creek.
The Army Corps of Engineers would continue to maintain a 12-foot federal channel at the entrance to Lake Montauk, as they have since the 1930s. However, the waters surrounding the channel receive no attention from the Army Corps, including the areas around the town slips at Star Island and West Lake Dock. Dredging around these key town spots would remove approximately 15,000 cubic yards to Block Island, where the Army Corps has been placing its spoil for years.
With a town-owned dredge, it is proposed that the Marine Maintenance Crew will be able to focus on those minor areas while the County and Army Corps will focus on the main throughways. Edwards and the assisting authors of the dredge report argue that the only way to improve flushing in East Hampton's waterways and ensure navigability without relying on a federal or county time-frame is for the town to purchase their own dredge equipment. And for $250,000, they claim, East Hampton would be able to carve a channel of their own destiny.
Jetties and groins, such as the one that extends off the western side of the inlet to Lake Montauk, can help prevent beach erosion from clogging the entrance to harbors, however the inner channels of East Hampton's waterways are still susceptible to the dangers of shoaling. Photo by Aaron Boyd