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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

30-year effort to clean up LI waters paying off

A mother and daughter walk onto Kirk Beach

A mother and daughter walk onto Kirk Beach in Montauk. (July 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Gordon M. Grant

Come on in. The water's fine.

Or at least that's the way it's been looking during this summer's open-water swimming season. Long Island waters could be the best place ever to get up close and personal with the good, and in some places, the bad, of the region's environment.

There, in the bays, ocean, lakes, ponds and harbors, there's an opportunity to breathe, feel, touch and taste what's happening in the tug-of-war between man and nature.

According to Neal Lewis, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, 30 years of efforts aimed at cleaning local waters are beginning to pay off.

"That's the good news, but that doesn't mean there's not more, a lot more, to be done," he said. It's essential that the region continues with projects such as upgrading sewers and curtailing polluting wastewater runoff, he said, infrastructure that could be forgotten in a time when budgets at every level of government are being pinched.

Larry Murphy of Greenlawn is one of a group that swims almost daily in this improving water.

He had a recent week's favorite posting on The Water Log, what a group of Huntington swimmers use to swap stories and schedule swims in different local waters:


"So I'm out there Friday morning minding my own business swimming . . . trying to stay out of the current . . . in my own world, just thinking random thoughts, like wow this is a cold spot, I wonder what it was like to be on the Titanic when it went down . . . if I swim really fast can I actually plane? . . . or could I run on top like Bugs Bunny? . . . OMG what was that white thing I just passed? . . . Then, whamo, something grabs my leg . . . "


Their season started in May with swimmers donning long-sleeved wet suits and double swim caps to ward off the cold.

In the weeks that followed, the group has encountered swans and egrets, horseshoe crabs and fish. And the ubiquitous moon jellies, which feel like cold, slimy potatoes.

Sometimes the waters have been rough. And, occasionally, there are unanticipated surprises. Which brings us back to Murphy:


" . . . I panicked. . . . Thru my fogged-up goggles, all I saw was pink and white teeth. I was sure it was the inside of a great white shark's mouth, but it didn't hurt. . . . I was stunned, I tried to make sense of it. . . . Then it talked. . . . Whew, you can believe I was happy to hear [Ken] Longo's voice. He had passed me and doubled back and grabbed my leg. . . . Holy smokes how the mind can wander when you are out in the water . . . "


In seasons past, it wasn't unusual to swim through greasy slicks and the swarms of mosquitoes feasting on them. Some swimmers gargled antiseptic mouthwash once back to shore.

That's changed.

"Most days now, we can look down and see our feet because the water is so clear, and unlike in years past, we're not dodging debris . . . or getting mired in or slimed by god-knows-what," said Carol Moore of Huntington, who started The Water Log.

"It's become an exquisite pleasure to swim in the open water again, and it is evidence that with proper care and nurture from us humans, the 'body' of water, like the human body, really can heal itself," she said. "As long as we don't keep doing things to try to kill it."


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