BY JAMES BERTSCH
SUFFOLK COUNTY—For most, owning a home is what the American Dream is all about. Nothing speaks more directly to this dream than the suburbs. Nationally, 55 percent of Americans today live in the suburbs, 31 percent in cities and 14 percent in rural settings (Pew Research Center). Levittown, Long Island, is where it all started. Other builders followed suit and the rest is history. Unfortunately, being first comes with a price. It means everyone learns from your mistakes. And we’ve made so many. Above-ground telephone lines, cesspools and no plan to preserve green spaces are just a few of them.
Yet, nature just pushed back on another of Long Island’s mistakes: man-made waterways. This one is called West Brook in Connetquot State Park. Like so many others (Southards Pond, Babylon; Pardees Pond, Islip; Mill Pond, Sayville; Great Patchogue Lake, Patchogue; Robinson Pond, East Patchogue), West Brook was dammed up years ago. As a major tributary to the Connetquot River, West Brook had been filled with silt, polluted, covered with algae and choked with invasive plants and animals for decades. Downstream, what were once wetlands—fulfilling their biological function of filtering out contaminants—long ago became hardened grass embankments. Unlike wetlands, grass does nothing for the environment. Worse still, the brook’s waters that do trickle past the pond are so poor they further pollute our languishing Great South Bay. Like nearly all of Long Island’s man-made waterways, the high nitrate levels of West Brook’s tepid waters lead to algal blooms that sap waters of oxygen and choke out plant life in the bay. These plants once protected our shores and homes from storm damage. Superstorm Sandy wouldn’t have done nearly as much damage, for example, if a proper plant buffer had been in place.
One would have never guessed what happened to the dam at West Brook: it failed. And so now, the water is flowing freely, returning the brook to its natural state. Sea otters and the migratory fish they feed on will return, as will the wetlands. And cleaner waters will once again flow into the Great South Bay. One day, the GSB could again become an economic engine. That’s a good thing, right? Apparently, the New York State Department of Parks & Recreation doesn’t think so. Regional staff from the office already informed the media they plan to repair the dam as soon as possible.
Why? Why waste taxpayer dollars to continue to destroy our environment? Replacing the dam won’t break the bank. Yet, the millions we’ll need to spend in the future to remove sediment from the pond will. Consider the $4 million spent in Upper Lake on Carmans River (Yaphank) and $2.5 million at Canaan Lake (Patchogue). That doesn’t take into account the revenue we continue to lose in the bay. A shadow of its former self, the Great South Bay once produced three-quarters of the nation’s clams. From the time of the Algonquins to the 1980s, the GSB was a job creator. It’s how we fed our families. Perhaps the Parks & Recreation Department is feeling nostalgic. Small waterways are quaint. Yet, nearly all of Long Island’s quaint man-made waterways are filled with toxic sludge that pollutes our bay. Is nostalgia more important than beautiful sea life, a sustainable future and a robust local economy?
Environmental groups—especially the Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip and Save the Great South Bay in Sayville—are stepping up. Both are asking to let West Brook flow. They are urging others to do the same. Seatuck has urged river connectivity for many years as part of their mission to conserve “Long Island wildlife and the environment.” They identify a number of benefits to letting West Brook flow. And as Save the Great South Bay explains in the 20 or so creek cleanups they’ve done, which is called the Creek Defender, the bay “will only be as healthy as the 36 creeks that flow into it.”
Ask the Parks & Recreation Department to let West Brook flow. Call, email or write a letter:
George Gorman, Long Island Director
New York Office of Parks & Recreation
625 Bellmont Avenue, West Babylon, NY 11704
Phone – (631) 669-1000
Email – George.firstname.lastname@example.org
Long Island must learn from its mistakes. The way of life that first attracted us—a bay that enables us to feed our families, wildlife, fresh water for swimming—is disappearing. We can no longer afford to dam our waters. Why kick the can down the road? Let West Brook be our test case. Let it flow. Neighbors won’t be affected since it’s in a park. Optimally, it will encourage us to develop plans to undam all of Long Island’s man-made waterways. We must look to the future. Our pride in being the first suburb should not imprison us in the past. If that happens, we just might become the first suburb to be born and the first to die.