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Lessons from the Sandy breach

A view in April of the breach torn

A view in April of the breach torn in Fire Island by superstorm Sandy in 2012. Research shows some benefits in the immediate area. Credit: Stony Brook University /Charles Flagg

Questions have been raised about the breach in Fire Island cut by superstorm Sandy and the water quality of the Great South Bay [“Beach may fuel algae,” News, June 3].

Since the breach’s formation, regions to its north (Bellport Bay) and east (Narrow Bay, Moriches Bay) have experienced great improvements: lower nitrogen, algae, summer water temperatures and fecal coliform bacteria levels, along with increased dissolved oxygen, water clarity and hard-clam growth rates.

In the center of the bay, however, algae and brown tide have increased. Water clarity, summer dissolved oxygen levels and juvenile hard-clam growth rates have decreased. Before the formation of the new inlet, brown tides in the bay occurred, on average, every other year. Since the breach, they have occurred every year. In fact, 2013 through 2018 mark the first time there have ever been six consecutive years of brown tide in the bay since it began in 1985.

While there was hope the new inlet would improve all of the bay, it has instead provided a cautionary tale. New inlets do indeed provide nearby ecosystem improvements, but without abatement of the root cause of poor water quality — excessive nitrogen loading — they are not a panacea, especially at greater distances.

Christopher J. Gobler, East Quogue

Editor’s note: The writer is a professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

News that this hurricane season may be busier than normal reminds of the adage about major storms: It’s not if, but when [“Calling for storm savvy,” News, June 2]. Long Island is sure to see more, and more intense, tropical storms — and with them, barrier island breaches. We must be prepared with a balanced, science-based breach-management plan.

For decades, New York State policy mandated that breaches be closed immediately. But superstorm Sandy brought an exception: A breach of Fire Island was allowed to remain because it occurred in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Area, a natural area that federal policy says should remained “un-manipulated.”

This breach taught two key lessons: Not all breaches dramatically increase flooding. And breaches significantly improve water quality, habitat value and wildlife populations. Breaches are also an integral part of the long-term viability of barrier islands.

Long Island needs a breach policy that balances flooding concerns with benefits to estuarine health and barrier island viability. Existing computer models should be used in advance to help determine where the benefits of a breach outweigh the potential risks. Federal authorities should adopt a responsible breach policy before the next major storm. Our estuaries, barrier islands and coastal communities depend on it.

Maureen Dunn, Islip

Editor’s note: The writer is a water quality scientist with the Seatuck Environmental Association.