Conflict regarding next steps for West Brook Pond

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After the wooden-board spillway at West Brook Dam failed in June, all the impounded water was released. Now that a non-functional dam resides here and the Department of Environmental Conservation has called for action from the Parks Department, two schools of thought on how to proceed have emerged: repair the dam and remove the dam.

The DEC’s divisions of Water and Natural Resources — as well as several environmentalist groups on Long Island — have fully endorsed the option of dam removal in order to restore the natural flow of the stream.

The functional purpose of dams like the one at West Brook Pond — and every other dam on Long Island — were for grist mills and harvesting ice, as every single one was built before 1900. As those functions are obsolete today, the thought process presented by environmentalists like Frank Piccininni, a trustee of Save the Great South Bay, is that the use is no longer a necessity.

“These were work purposes, as opposed to the recreational use you see creating a conflict here, now,” Piccininni said.

Regional commissioner for the department, Richard Remmer, grew up in the area and has been acquainted with West Brook Pond for most of his life. Remmer said that it has been a popular fishing hole for decades.

“It is a very unusual fishing spawn because it is accessible 24/7, 365 days a year,” Remmer said. “There is always parking on the side of the road there. It doesn’t cost anything to park. And there is no reservation system. It has always fascinated me that there is usually a car there. Sometimes there are two or three.”

He continued on to note multiple Oakdale residents who fish here either often or on a regular basis.

One topic that has drawn argument is the fate of the eel population with a dam in place. Representatives from various environmentalists groups, including Save the Great South Bay and Seatuck, put forth that a dam is also a barrier for those aquatic species that must travel upstream.

Remmer, however, cited that eels have the ability to scale up to 30 or 40 feet.

“Every waterfall and stream in New York State has been ascended by eels with the exception of Niagara Falls,” he said, referring to an account from historic naturalist and New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, during the 1820s.

Enrico Nardone, the executive director of Seatuck, however, rebutted that the average eel is not able to climb very high without slipping back down.

“Eels can climb out of the water. In certain cases, when there is enough texture on walls, can climb over and pass the dam. I have watched eels do this, and many of them fail,” Nardone said. “They climb up and then fall back. [Dams are] blocking eels, not every eel, but they are blocking eels.”

Nardone continued to say that an eel’s sensational climbing ability has been a misconception in scientific research. Additionally, he said that since the majority of eels cannot make it over the dam, a significant amount pool just under the dam and serve as easy prey.

Remmer presented the argument that an impoundment is actually beneficial for eels, considering the higher water temperature.

“The argument that natural streams are better for eels also appears contrary to the facts. Female eels spend 10 or more years of their lives in freshwater growing and maturing before they head out to sea to spawn. They can survive in streams, but certainly not in the same numbers and not as successfully because female eels do best in warm water where there is lots of food. Successful aquaculture of eels depends on ponds,” Remmer said, referring to an article published on TheFishSite.com.

Everyone is on the same page about dams being harmful for alewives, an anadromous herring species, as the dam serves as a direct barrier. However, Remmer argued that alewife-spawning success would not be salvaged here even if the dam were to be fully removed, citing a fact sheet published by Maine Department of Marine Resources, MaineRivers.org and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gulf of Maine program.

“Spawning occurs in ponds and lakes or the quiet backwaters of rivers and streams,” according to the fact sheet. It continues to read, “Once hatched, juvenile alewives remain in freshwater lakes and ponds where they also feed on zooplankton.”

One more piece of the argument is relevant to the potential spread of non-native phragmites, which are listed by the DEC as an invasive plant species in New York. In terms of the plant’s ability to reseed and spread, the difference in thought is if the phragmite is invasive and manageable, or invasive and rampant.

Alison Branco, from the Long Island Nature Conservancy, said that whether or not the dam is removed is irrelevant to the spread of phragmites.

“However, if it starts to encroach [upstream, for example], it is important to monitor and take necessary action,” Branco said.

In September, Seatuck gathered volunteers to clip the heads off phragmites to limit reseeding.

Neither Parks Department regional director George Gorman nor a representative from Connetquot River State Park Preserve made themselves available for comment by press time. n

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