This piece is written in response to the Islip Bulletin’s Dec. 19, 2019 coverage of the dam that broke on its own in West Brook within Connetquot State Park. This is an issue of the few vs. the many. On the side of the few are sports fishermen, namely Richard Remmer, owner of the Snapper Inn. Mr. Remmer last held the presidency of the Friends of Connetquot in 2007, a nonprofit group that supports Connetquot State Park. The article mistakenly refers to Mr. Remmer as the “regional commissioner for the department,” which we assume the writer meant as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Mr. Remmer wants the dam replaced. On the side of the many are government agencies and environmental groups, like the DEC (the government); the environmentalists are Seatuck and Save the Great South Bay. The government and environmentalists do not want to replace the dam.
We have reached a breaking point. Historians estimate that in its heyday, the Great South Bay harvested 70 percent of the nation’s clams. But times have changed. When West Brook was built, before 1900, these ponds were built for gristmills and harvesting ice. Such man-made ponds dot Long Island. They have become a nostalgic beacon of a different time, a time when sports fisherman could dip their fishing poles in man-made ponds to enjoy nature. We don’t blame them. But their leisure is now achieved at our expense. Our needs today are far different than they were back in the 1900s.
As of our most recent census in 2010, 44,000 people live in South Shore towns from East Islip to Sayville (East Islip, 14,000; Great River, 1,500; Oakdale, 7900; Sayville, 16,000; and West Sayville, 5000). That’s a far cry from the 1,000-2,000 people that lived here in the 1900s, when dams like West Brook were built. Our clamming industry has died because the Great South Bay has become polluted. And the solution to pollution really is dilution. By that we mean Great South Bay’s polluted waters would benefit from the infusion of clean water from Long Island’s many underground streams, like West Brook.
There are three hidden problems with damming such creeks: 1) destruction of native fish and wildlife 2) introduction of invasive plant and shellfish and 3) stifling of wetlands that clean the bay. Artificial ponds heat waters in shallow ponds that harm local fish populations. Downstream, sediment is deposited in the now warmer waters that are the perfect habitat for invasive vegetation and shellfish. As to the wetlands, when clean water flows naturally, it creates downstream wetlands. Dammed ponds create impoundments, hard-packed dirt that dries up without flowing water. Wetlands serve as nature’s filters. When water laps up against the shores, especially during high tide, it deposits contaminants in those grasses. Clean water is returned to the bay as a result.
We are the source of our own demise. By polluting our bay, including dumping phosphates and nitrates from our cesspools and lawns, we didn’t just kill our clam industry, which is what drew settlers to Long Island in the first place. We are also killing coastal plants, in wetlands and across the entire shoreline. Those plants need oxygen from the water to live. That oxygen is choked out by nitrates and phosphates. What does it matter if we lose a few plants? Those very same plants serve as a buffer. That buffer protects our homes during storms and the seasonal floods that are more frequent these days.
We can no longer afford to trap the clean water of West Brook. We must let it flow. It’s almost self-evident when one considers there is a fishable impoundment within walking distance of West Brook. Given West Brook broke on its own, we now have a unique opportunity. West Brook can be our pilot. We can demonstrate that the infusion of fresh waters is so beneficial, it warrants the planned unleashing of waters from the coastal, artificial ponds throughout Long Island. The fresh waters and restored wetlands will act together to clean the bay’s waters so it can sustain the plant life needed to protect our homes.
If we’re going to look back to the 1900s at the case for sports fishermen looking to re-dam West Brook, let us look even further back. I propose the 1860s. Like “The Great Gatsby’s” Dutch sailors, that’s when families like the Ockers, Van Poperings, Van Wyens, Vander Borghs and Westerbekes started settling in Oakdale and West Sayville. They came here from Holland, full of dreams. They dreamt of making a new life in this New World harvesting the abundant shellfish on our shores. And they did it! The shellfish they harvested built our roads. They made our community what it is.
We are bound by that promise. To live up to it, we need to let West Brook flow. We need to take many steps like it if we are to save the Great South Bay. We must return our beautiful lagoon to its original state. We must return it so our children and their children’s children can once again make a living from its shores—just like the dreams of Dutch sailors who set foot on our shores to build a new life