Editorial: Let science inform decisions on Fire Island breach

This photo, looking north, shows the new breach This photo, looking north, shows the new breach on Fire Island caused by superstorm Sandy on March 9, 2013. Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

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Understanding nature remains one of the great challenges of our times. Ecosystems are complex, and predictions elusive. But our ability to thrive -- and sometimes survive -- often depends on our ability to decipher what nature has in store for us. We're seeing that now in the islandwide effort to rebuild stronger in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. What to do, and where to do it?

Controversy is swirling around how to deal with the breach created by Sandy near the Old Inlet section of the Fire Island National Seashore wilderness area.

Scientists say this break in the barrier island already has had dramatically positive effects in cleaning the Great South Bay. Many worried South Shore homeowners say it has increased the risk of flooding. Some want to keep the breach open, some want it closed. Others want to monitor it. Now the federal government has allocated $1 million to study the options. That's a good idea -- even if it takes some time. The fears of homeowners are understandable. We're all still traumatized by Sandy's flooding, and now there's another channel through which water can attack. But fear cannot be a substitute for facts. We must avoid hasty action. Let's get the data and make a decision based on science.

Storm-blasted inlets are not a new phenomenon. They have come and gone along the South Shore for centuries. Old Inlet itself lasted some 60 years, from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s, before it closed naturally. That's what inlets typically do -- they get opened, they get plugged, then another storm blows a hole open somewhere else. Scientists say this new breach has been relatively stable -- about 650 feet wide on the north end -- so far. Last winter was mild in terms of nor'easters; no one knows right now how the sand around the breach will move in response to a serious storm.

What is known is the new breach has produced measurable environmental benefits in the eastern part of the Great South Bay -- including improved water quality and less severe brown tides -- according to researchers at Stony Brook University. Balanced against that is the question of whether the breach could exacerbate flooding along that stretch of the South Shore. Answering that is the principal potential benefit of the study. The Stony Brook team says the breach has not affected water levels or tides. And both they and Fire Island seashore personnel note that water also flows out of inlets, which can act like release valves when water levels get high. With the dredging of Fire Island Inlet at the west end, they say, it's possible storm effects could be muted since water will have escape routes at both ends of the bay.

Unfortunately, some local politicians don't want to wait to find out. Channeling homeowner alarm, they're demanding the breach be closed. For them, it's a win-win. If there's a flood and the breach is open, they'll say: I tried. If there's a flood and the breach is closed, they'll say: I did what I could. But other homeowners -- including some in Bellport, directly north of the breach -- are taking a more measured approach, arguing we should leave the breach alone.

The results of the study might not change minds. The process includes public hearings and a comment period, so everyone will have a say. We should let that play out and then let the facts be our guide, not emotion.

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