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Protecting Clean Water on Eastern Long Island, New York

photo credit: Dalton Portella

The Surfrider Eastern Long Island Chapter is growing its Ocean Friendly Gardens and Blue Water Task Force programs to a grand scale with the help of community partners.

The East End of Long Island offers a wide array of coastal waterways for people to enjoy. Beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, Peconic Bay, and Long Island Sound fill up during the busy summer season, but their use extends well into the cooler months, if not year-round, for surfing, paddling, fishing, and other recreational pursuits. Harbors, estuaries, and coastal ponds provide additional options for people to spend a day outside on or in the water. Clean water is not only important for safe recreation and healthy lifestyles but is also critical to support the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism and other water-dependent industries like recreational and commercial fishing.  

Despite the relatively rural character of the local communities due to relatively progressive zoning and land conservation efforts, water quality has been declining across the East End because of inadequate wastewater treatment. Very few communities are sewered – most households are connected to out-of-date cesspools and septic systems that overload local bays and estuaries with nitrogen pollution, even when they are functioning as designed. When these systems completely fail because of over-use or wet conditions from stormwater, rising water tables, and tides, local waterways can be inundated with fecal pathogens as well. This puts public health at risk and has resulted in a proliferation of harmful algae blooms that wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. 

Screenshot 2024-05-15 at 8.47.44 AMThe chapter's summer intern collects a water sample in Hook Pond.

Increasing concerns with water quality and large gaps in the beach water quality monitoring program run by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services prompted the Surfrider Eastern Long Island (ELI) Chapter to team up with a local environmental organization, the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, to launch their Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) ten years ago. The county monitors life-guarded bathing beaches during the summer, many on a monthly basis only. Initially, the BWTF sampling program covered approximately a dozen beaches in Montauk, but has since grown into the go-to source for year-round water quality information across the East End. Another partner, the Peconic Baykeeper, has joined the team and collaboratively staff and volunteers from each partner organization monitor over 80 sampling sites where people access and recreate in the water across the North and South Forks of Long Island. They are also sampling potential sources of pollution including freshwater creeks and outflows of stormwater runoff. Testing occurs on a weekly basis from May through October and then occurs monthly during the cooler, winter months. All resulting water quality data are shared widely on social media and sent out via an email report so people have easy access to the information they need to know where it’s safe to surf, swim, and play in the water. 

An annual water quality report is also released every summer describing trends that define local pollution problems and help prioritize remediation and restoration efforts by local authorities and other stakeholders. For instance, the Town of East Hampton has investigated stormwater conveyances that lead to BWTF sampling sites that frequently measured high bacteria levels in Georgica Pond and at an ocean beach in Montauk. This lead to infrastructure repairs and new stormwater best management practices implemented to reduce polluted flows at these popular recreational access areas. 

PartnerAnnualReportBWTF volunteers and staff from partner organizations announce the release of their annual water quality report in Sag Harbor, NY.

Surfrider ELI also launched its Ocean Friendly Gardens program in 2017. Their first project installed a large bioswale in the Village Green in East Hampton to help absorb the massive amounts of road runoff that flow onto the site heading downstream towards Hook Pond and eventually the Atlantic Ocean at Main Beach. What was once a monoculture lawn that regularly flooded with stormwater, has since been transformed into an oasis of native plants that quickly absorb and filter the polluted runoff. This garden is a seasonal show stopper and has great public visibility located right on the main thoroughfare heading through town.

Screenshot 2024-05-15 at 9.11.09 AMThe Village Green Bioswale Ocean Friendly Garden, East Hampton, NY

The success of this first project motivated the chapter and garden designer Piazza Horticultural to plan an even bigger OFG project with their community partners. With funds secured through private donations and the Clean Water East Hampton Community Preservation Fund, construction began in 2021 to remove over a ½ acre of turf lawn at another public green that receives significant road runoff. The Methodist Lane Ocean Friendly Garden includes a low-lying wetland area, a pollinator garden, and a meadow with native trees and grasses. The project was designed to maximize water absorption while creating wildlife habitat with native plant and tree species that support local bird and pollinator populations. 

As both gardens have become established (with over 20,000 native plants collectively!), they have performed beautifully, absorbing stormwater runoff and helping to protect downstream waters. This was keenly on display during the quick but heavy downpours that fell last summer. While village roads were flooded, these gardens received, absorbed, and naturally filtered out pollutants from a massive amount of stormwater runoff and oftentimes were nearly dry before the end of the day. The chapter is also holding garden workshops, tours, and volunteer work days to educate local youth and community groups on the benefits of native plants and how to incorporate sustainable landscaping practices into their yards at home. The chapter will hold more community events this coming year to continue to shift public perceptions on how we can care for our public spaces and residential yards to protect clean water while adding beauty to the community. You can learn more about the Methodist Lane Bioswale Ocean Friendly Garden on the chapter’s website

Screenshot 2024-05-15 at 9.17.19 AM

The Methodist Lane Bioswale Ocean Friendly Garden in East Hampton, NY has become a beautiful meeting place and absorbs and filters road runoff to protect clean water downstream.