About 200 people showed up to a meeting in Southampton called to reinvigorate conservation and management efforts for the Peconic Estuary.

Elected leaders, environmentalists and heads of various agencies attended the all-day conference Monday at an Elm Street catering hall, to try to reignite preservation efforts and start developing a new cooperative effort to protect the health of the bays.

A decade ago, cars all over the East End sported "Save the Bay" bumper stickers, and towns, county and state funds were actively spent both to buy waterfront land for preservation and to reduce pollution by controlling runoff and upgrading sewage treatment systems.

A formal Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the estuary was approved by the federal EPA in November 2001. While many of its guidelines were eventually adopted in the nine years since, a lot of the people who created the program are no longer involved, and new officials face a bewildering pile of technical problems to solve, management programs to draw up, a shrinking pile of money to do it, and the knowledge that as the last open waterfront lands are purchased, time to protect the Peconic Estuary is running out.

State Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), the keynote speaker and one of the original supporters of creating the Peconic Estuary Program, noted that "we have had some substantial successes with sewage plant upgrades, storm water abatement and wetlands restoration . . . but the job isn't done. We are still confronted with crises like the red tide."

Just as important, he said, the drive to save the bay seems to have lost some steam. "We have a whole new generation now of county and town officials, and they don't have the same energy and commitment," Thiele said. "Clearly the Peconic Bay is a great environmental treasure . . . but it is also the anchor of the local economy. We have the second home industry, and people still want to be here to fish and swim and boat."

"It's a very difficult fiscal climate . . . but either we move to the next level or we say: 'This is as good as it gets,' " said Kevin McDonald, director of public lands for the Nature Conservancy.

McDonald said 16 years ago nearly half the waterfront land in the estuary was available for purchase, either for private development or for preservation. Now, only 10 percent of undeveloped land fits into that category.

Peconic baykeeper Kevin McAllister said many of the current issues involved in the environmental health of the Peconic Estuary cannot fit on a bumper sticker - things like coming up with a solution to the loss of 80 percent of Peconic Bay's eel grass since a massive "wasting disease" hit the Atlantic seaboard in 1930, and the cascading impact that has had on the various species that require eel grass for spawning and growth.

Only about 1,500 acres of eel grass remain in the Peconic Estuary, most of it east of Shelter Island.

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