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State to add Suffolk South Shore bays to cleanup list

The Great South Bay and several neighboring bays plagued by recurrent blooms of harmful brown tide algae will be added to a state list of "impaired" waters this week.

Their inclusion on the list could open up federal money for research and boost efforts to revive the region's decimated hard clam population. Numbers plummeted in the 1980s, largely due to overharvesting. Brown tide has hampered restoration efforts because the algae, which appeared in local bays after the crash, makes it harder for clams to feed.

But regulations to limit pollution from nearby watersheds are not likely to come soon. Officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation said more study is needed on what causes the harmful algal blooms before the state decides on the best approach to prevent them.

DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said the agency added the Great South Bay, Moriches Bay, Quantuck Bay and Shinnecock Bay and Inlet to the draft 2010 impaired waters list due to concerns about brown tide. Inclusion on the list does not affect boating or other recreational access, she said.

Wren said the state will publish the draft list Wednesday for public comment. A proposed final list will be sent to to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval by April 1.

Carl LoBue, a marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, said he hoped the designation will eventually result in state action to reduce nitrogen flowing from storm water runoff and septic systems. Nitrogen is widely cited as a possible trigger of brown tide.

"I'd hate to see this simply deferred so it can sit on a list with nothing happening for the next decade or more," said LoBue. "It could mean money for research but not probably action to limit nutrients."

The Nature Conservancy asked the DEC last fall to add the Great South Bay to the impaired waters list. The group is working to restore clams at its sprawling bay bottom preserve off West Sayville.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, every two years states must identify waterbodies that do not meet state water quality standards for pathogens, nitrogen and other pollutants. In some cases, the state must consider strategies to improve water quality. These can include calculating the maximum amount of contaminants that a river or bay can absorb and still remain clean enough for bathing or shellfish harvesting. That formula is called a total maximum daily load, or TMDL.

The state's 2008 list called for TMDLs for several Long Island waterbodies, including western Hempstead Bay and the Forge River.

But even when a stream or bay makes the list, the process can take years. Limits for nitrogen in Hempstead Bay will not be done until 2012, Wren said.

News of the South Shore bays' place on the list comes as officials await word on another potential source of federal money for clam restoration - one from the Commerce Department.

In 2008, after prodding from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and local officials, Gov. David A. Paterson asked that the decline of the clam fishery in the Great South Bay be declared a commercial fishery failure.

The application languished until November, when the DEC sent over data needed to make the determination, said Galen Tromble, a fishery management officer with the department.

"It's a priority," Tromble said, adding that the department was now working to prepare its determination.

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