Smithtown Parks Department workers, Dan Landauer, left, and Patrick Foy...

Smithtown Parks Department workers, Dan Landauer, left, and Patrick Foy remove brush from a stream around the Nissequogue River in Smithtown on Thursday. Credit: Randee Daddona

Municipal workers with waders and hand tools cleared brush, mud and litter from clogged Nissequogue River tributaries in Smithtown last week in a herculean bid to dry soggy backyards, reduce mosquitoes and mitigate chronic basement flooding. 

David Barnes, Smithtown’s top environmental official, said 25 workers from town Highway, Parks and Municipal Services Facility departments and Suffolk County, along with Village of the Branch contractors, spent 1,000 hours clearing 3.7 miles of the Northeast Branch and its side streams, passing through manicured subdivisions and a swath of woodland from Blydenburgh Park south to Bow Drive in Hauppauge. 

The unusual joint approach was needed because the streams cross land under village, town and county jurisdictions, and because of the volume of work. “No one of us could solve all these residents’ issues,” Barnes said.

A 2018 Village of the Branch project partially cleared a section of the tributary. Town workers made their last pass about a decade ago. In the years since, the streams widened as they backed up, muddying the fringes of dozens of backyards, and mosquitoes bred in stagnant water. 

The cleanup should help those problems. But solving groundwater flooding in the area — a decadeslong problem — will be harder, he said. “It will be some help… but it’s not going to be huge.” Layers of clay as much as 70 or 90 feet underground prevent water from percolating down, he said. Some houses in the area, built in the mid-20th century, probably wouldn’t be built under today’s environmental regulations, he said. 

Nevertheless, Village of the Branch Mayor Mark Delaney said he’d already heard from happy residents, and Suffolk County Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said any improvement would be welcome. Some of her constituents run multiple sump pumps in their basements, she said. “You can’t walk into the grocery store without people telling you about their pumping.”

Michelle Pipia-Stiles, a Village of the Branch resident whose home backs onto the Northeast Branch, said her family had grown used to backyard flooding that turned the ground to mush. “This would be a welcome initiative,” she said.

Officials scheduled their campaign during the winter, when the town’s Parks and Highway workers have fewer urgent projects. There was less undergrowth to impede access to the stream and fewer insects, but conditions were not ideal. 

On Terrace Lane in Village of the Branch last week, four town Parks staffers — Dan Landauer, Vincent Mangogna, Tyler Sattong and Patrick Foy — emerged from the stream carrying pitchforks. They’d removed logs, vines, branches and garbage, Landauer said. The work had been hard — they walked through chest-deep water at another section of the stream earlier in the week — but “we know we’re having an impact,” Foy said. 

Jim Deutsch, the town’s deputy highway superintendent, said “it may take a while for the land to dry out,” but already the stream’s water level had dropped by as much as eight inches in places. “You can see the sand,” he said, and down where the Parks men had worked the water ran brisk and clear.

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