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Helping to save the Great South Bay

The opening of the inlet at Gilgo Beach would improve water quality in the bay.

Kids are learning how to sail in Narrasketuck

Kids are learning how to sail in Narrasketuck Cove on the Great South Bay. Credit: Kevin Sandler, Merrick

The Great South Bay is still very ill. New York State and Suffolk County are fighting the good fight to reduce nitrogen in our over-enriched bay. Upgrading septic systems, expanding sewers and controlling storm runoff will minimize the growing presence of algae blooms that suffocate fish and shellfish and choke the life out of the bay. The costs are enormous and it will take time to be effective.

The fight must be sustained, but the bay’s problems are also a matter of inadequate water flow.

The issue became clear to me during a fundraising boat ride for a statue in Babylon Village in May 2016, when the water was marred by an early brown tide — as if someone had poured into it massive amounts of coffee and cream. The statue, called The Bayman, now stands in Argyle Park, and depicts a 1970s bayman at the height of the clamming industry just before its collapse as the bay degraded.

When creating Ocean Parkway in the late 1920s, builder Robert Moses filled in an inlet and altered the bay’s natural water flow. Ever since, the littoral drift of sand thins out the Gilgo Beach shoreline where the inlet was. Every couple of years, the Army Corps of Engineers must replenish the lost sand to ensure the integrity of the beachfront and ultimately the parkway. In fact, the corps is replenishing the exact location this year.

Many experts in the field agree that opening the inlet will improve the water quality in the bay. An engineered inlet should be nonnavigable and designed solely for water flow. Experts in the field have said increased flow through openings in the barrier beach will not raise the water level on the mainland. This issue of concern was argued after superstorm Sandy opened a natural inlet at Old Inlet in Bellport Bay. In fact, the reformation of Old Inlet points out that nature will do what nature wants to do. Since Old Inlet opened, environmentalists and bay lovers have marveled at the improved condition of the Bellport and Moriches Bay. But this cleansing does little to help the western sections of the bay and underscores the need for a second new source of water flow.

The inlet would need a storm gate to provide protection from eventual hurricanes and nor’easters. A storm surge could overwhelm the inlet and undermine the integrity of the structure and the parkway, as well as negatively change the dynamics of water being forced onto the mainland.

Another benefit to creating the inlet at Gilgo is that while we excavate we can dig out the remains of the old Coast Guard Station. The station was demolished in the late ’70s and the foundation remains as a permanent fixture on the beachscape. Unfortunately, the skeleton of the station reappears each time the sand depletes. Once uncovered, the station’s remains act as a groin and scallop out the adjoining Town of Babylon’s Gilgo Beach.

Though skeptics are concerned with sand maintenance, engineers are convinced that the power of the water flow through the inlet will keep the inlet sand free. It is clear that the amount of clean water runoff cannot handle the cleansing of the bay. But the bay will never flush properly until we increase the natural flow of water.

We must foster a much deeper discussion on how to save our bay. The economic, environmental and recreational benefits to saving our bay are immense. Bays and waterways like the Chesapeake Bay have proven to be resilient, why not the Great South Bay?

Wayne Horsley is a former Democratic Suffolk County legislator and former Babylon Town official who retired this year as general manager of the Long Island State Parks Commission.

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