Tainted Water

Jack Russell terriers are not water dogs. “She just happened to go down to the pond,” says Annie Gilchrist Hall, “because we had two of our kids here sailing.” Annie and John Hall’s pet was familiar with Georgica Pond, East Hampton’s serene, 290-acre body of water — a stunning backdrop to some of the most desirable real estate on the planet. The Halls live on the pond.

It was just after Labor Day in 2012. The little dog, Rosie, frolicked in the water, then licked her paws. Almost instantly “she went into neurotoxic shock,” Hall says. “It’s so graphic: She put her four legs out straight. She was breathing, but couldn’t move.”

Three days later, Rosie died. A tissue sample revealed toxic exposure to cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, microbes that produce dangerous neuroand gastrointestinal poisons. With that, a realization came into focus: Inconceivably, Georgica was poisonous.

Blue-green algae has plagued the pond for a decade, but never to the extent it has in the last few years. In July 2014, when cyanobacteria bloomed anew in Georgica, masses of fish died off, and, according to some accounts, one or two deer. Within days — and at the height of the summer season — the East Hampton Town Trustees were forced to do the inconceivable: close the pond to swimming and wading, and shut down shellfishing and fishing.

Alarming signs went up. Local baymen’s harvest of eels, and the commercial and recreational harvest of blue crabs — a much-loved tradition — ceased. Sailing and cat-boat regattas were suspended at the little Georgica Association sailing club on the western shore. Main Beach Surf and Sport, which uses a public put-in at the north end for outings and lessons, relocated. The ban lasted into October.

One of the few remaining baymen to work Georgica Pond, Kevin Miller, earlier this spring

The centerpiece, the picture-postcard view, the very focus of every property on Georgica was now suddenly and unthinkably toxic. And property owners, many of them the influential and wealthy titans of American media, industry, and the arts, were uncharacteristically helpless to identify a quick fix.

Georgica’s woes have been long in the making. In centuries past, a twice annual flushing — a breaching by heavy equipment of the barrier beach that separates the pond from the ocean — kept the pond and its inhabitants in fine fettle. The spring and fall “lettings” would flush out toxic algae blooms and turgid, poorly oxygenated water, to which it is particularly prone in the warmer summer months, and fill the pond with cleansing ocean water.

In more recent decades, however, the flushing has been akin to a Band-Aid on a potentially mortal ailment. As soon as the barrier beach closes up naturally, as it always does, algae and oxygen depletion have begun to creep back up to toxic levels.

In the past five years the algae has returned with a vengeance. The nightmare scenario is playing out again this summer. Blue-green algae levels triggered Suffolk County warnings in early July, marking the earliest toxic bloom in years. The decline in the health of the pond recently is dramatic, scientists and observers say.

“I don’t remember the water turning that blue-green paint color ever until the summer of 2012,” says Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle, another Georgica Pond resident.

 Georgica is not alone. Ocean-fed ponds and lakes from Lake Agawam in Southampton to Fort Pond in Montauk are in various states of bad health. Cyanobacteria blooms have fouled nearby Wainscott and Sagaponack Ponds, Kellis Pond in Bridgehampton, Mill Pond in Water Mill, Maratooka Lake in Mattituck, and, in Southampton, Old Town and Wickapogue Ponds.

Last summer, cyanobacteria broke out in scenic Hook Pond in East Hampton Village, the backdrop to the Maidstone Club’s iconic golf course as well as 18 summer “cottages.” Village officials posted signs warning against exposure.

“The patient,” said a consultant who recently studied Hook and Town Ponds, “is very ill.”

“In the 48 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never known the pond to be closed,” says Linda James, who lives on Hook Pond.

The trouble with our ponds is, of course, us. At play are forces that define the East End today: competing environmental, residential, and agricultural interests and a failure to manage the results of huge growth. “Crowding on Land Is Harming Our Waterways,” warned The East Hampton Star’s April 21 report on an annual assessment of East Hampton Town’s waters. The assessment, conducted by Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, included the somber warning that Georgica suffers from “the negative effects of housing density and inadequate septic systems.”

The scientist who wrote it also blamed Georgica’s decline on decades of overuse of fertilizer on lawns and gardens, and years of seeping nitrogen and phosphorous-fertilizer use on farms as far away as Long Lane in East Hampton. All those nutrients and chemicals end up in the pond, triggering the toxic algae blooms like sparks to hay.

At play are forces that define the East End

today: competing environmental,

residential, and agricultural interests

and a failure to manage the results of

huge growth.

Mark Borucke, a lifelong resident of Southampton, has fished South Fork ponds recreationally for most of his life. He’s also been hosting freshwater bass fishing tournaments for Ducks Unlimited and other organizations for 35 years and has watched water-quality declines firsthand.

“Mother Nature is screaming,” says Borucke. “She is saying, ‘I can only balance myself so much from all of the shit that’s coming at me!’ ”

“The population here is offsetting that balance. We are creating a habitat that is not supposed to be here,” she says, of the manicured green lawns and pristine gardens in the area, “killing off the environment through our desire for perfection.” 

But there’s hope. Motivated, smart, wealthy people with a huge stake in cleaning up the ponds are rallying. Prompted by the recent blooms and closures, alarmed Georgica Pond neighbors, with the encouragement of the Town of East Hampton, have formed Friends of the Georgica Pond Foundation, a conservancy for Georgica. The group is funding research to identify solutions to Georgica’s woes — solutions that will be applicable to dozens of similarly distressed East End water bodies.

Among those leading the foundation is, appropriately, the creator of a coffee-table photography book entitled Georgica Pond, Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle. She’s teamed up with Annie Gilchrist Hall and Dr. Anna Chapman, fellow pond-front property owners.

“My husband said, ‘You need to form the Central Park Conservancy of Georgica Pond,’ ” Whittle says. “He had the right idea, and we became galvanized pretty quickly. Now, we have to figure out how to actually get it done.” 

More than half of the 77 pond-front property owners have joined the foundation, and some $360,000 was quickly amassed for the initial effort. The group hired as its executive director Sara Davison, formerly of the Nature Conservancy.

“The pond is really a symbol of East Hampton,” Davison says. “People have tried to manage and control and stabilize this pond, but it’s never been done.”

At least not to the extent the foundation intends. The group has wisely teamed up with Stony Brook’s marine science school and launched the Georgica Pond Project. Stony Brook and the foundation several years ago began monitoring water quality in the pond — pH levels, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and blue-green algae, nitrogen, phosphorous levels — manually, and this summer via a large, yellow, floating “telemetry buoy” that sends the data directly to the school for collection and analysis (you can check it out at you.stonybrook.edu/georgicapond). Additionally, and perhaps more dramatically, the foundation leased a mechanical harvester, which will work all summer removing algae from the pond.

Blue-green algae has always been naturally present in many lakes and streams, and is harmless in small amounts. But excessive algal growth discolors water and produces floating rafts or scum on the surface. Big blooms like those in East End ponds suck the oxygen from the water, killing fish and other living organisms. Human and animal exposure to the blooms can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, skin, eye, or throat irritation, nausea, allergic reactions, breathing difficulties, or even death — exhibit A: Rosie, the Jack Russell.

If anyone can turn around the ailing Georgica, and demonstrate a way forward to communities throughout the Eastern Seaboard struggling with the same issues, it should be the Georgica foundation. It’s up against years of pollution that will seep into the pond for decades to come, but it has political clout and wealth on its side, and a huge personal (financial and psychic) stake in a positive outcome.

Consider the sheer clout of the owners of pond-front real estate. It’s hard to imagine any of them would abide a toxic mess on their doorsteps for very long. Here’s a cursory list: Georgica is home to Steven Spielberg, the film director; Ronald Perelman, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who owns the Creeks, a 57- acre estate at the north end of the pond; Arne Glimcher, art dealer and founder of the Pace Gallery; Harry Macklowe, a real estate mogul; Ed Burns, the actor and director, and his wife, the supermodel Christy Turlington; Kelly Klein, the model and author; Katharine Ann Johnson Rayner of the Cox Enterprises empire, and many other heavy hitters.

The Maidstone Club and its influential roster of members own most of the eastern shore of Hook Pond. Wainscott Pond is the setting for the home of Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics baron and philanthropist. Robert Hurst, who was vice chairman of Goldman Sachs and now is a partner in Crestview, a private-equity firm, has a 33-acre estate on Kellis Pond. Lake Agawam is encircled by Southampton’s finest estates, and bound to the south by the storiedSouthampton Bathing Corporation and to the north by a beloved village park. Sagg Pond is the jewel in the crown of the Village of Sagaponack, among America’s most affluent zip codes.

Scientist Ryan Wallace, a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University, places a data-collecting buoy in the Pond.

 With alarm bells ringing loudly, the will to solve this water crisis is growing now, too. “People see it,” Rattazzi Whittle says. “Now it’s a matter of what works and what is possible. And, like everything, what it will cost.” 

Solutions won’t come easily. They will take years of work and will likely require ongoing investment of willpower and cash. And they will require sacrifices.

“None of us can change it,” Mr. Borucke says, “if all of us don’t try.”

Some 77 properties encircle Georgica, but the watershed includes more than 2,000 residences and businesses stretching far to the north of town. And when you begin to talk about not just Georgica Pond but the South Fork watershed as a whole, the numbers multiply exponentially.

Radically reducing new development in our watersheds is one extremely difficult, but ultimately necessary, step: Sooner or later, a crisis with our waterways as well as our water supply will force the hands of our town boards. The water issue will only get worse the longer we wait to act boldly.

One mechanism to slow the grow that is harming the watershed might be a forward-thinking application of the powerful Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund, which is financed by a 2-percent real estate transfer tax in all five East End towns. The fund, which raised close to $33 million in just the first five months of this year, about $13.5 million of it in East Hampton, has been a huge success in saving open spaces and farmland, for decades now. The East Hampton Star’s lead editorial after Memorial Day called for a “zero-growth” strategy or the “aggressive use” of the fund to purchase property in key watershed areas, either to keep it undeveloped or to return developed lots to uninhabited open space.

Meanwhile, the Georgica foundation has hired a Stony Brook University scientist, Dr. Christopher Gobler, to chart a course for Georgica, specifically, which many see as a bellwether for other threatened bodies of water. His final recommendations are expected sometime later this year, when data taken from the pond has been analyzed. Although nothing can happen until state and local officials sign off, Gobler has hinted at what’s needed:

 

 • Whether through a voluntary effort or an eventual municipal urban ban, most use of residential chemical fertilizers must end.
 • On key properties, buffers made up of native vegetation should be built to intercept runoff. 
• The pond should be opened to the ocean more often.
 • The pond should be dredged to remove a thick layer of phosphorus and nitrogen-laden sediment that fuels algal blooms. A deeper pond would also be less prone to the ill effects of warming. 
• A strategically placed permeable reactive barrier to intercept nitrogen from groundwater near the surface is planned (a pilot barrier project at Pussy’s Pond in Springs has delivered impressive results).
 • Perhaps most important, regulations and incentives (financial and otherwise) need to be put in place to get homeowners to upgrade failing or inadequate septic systems. Further, all new development should only come with state-of-the-art systems designed to block nitrogen from entering the watershed. Suffolk County is reportedly considering these state-of-the-art systems designed to do just that.

 “That would be a wonderful thing,” said Edward Warner, president of the Southampton Town Trustees. “I’ve had conversations with architects who are building $20 and $30 million houses, and their customers would be more than willing to install them. But until the county says they’re good to go, they’re not going to do it.”

The foundation at Georgica and Stony Brook will analyze all data and possible strategies through a simplelens: What’s the most effective way (cost- and otherwise) to reduce or remove the nutrients — chemical or organic — that feed the algae and muck up our ponds?

The aquatic-weed harvester at Georgica this summer is pivotal. All eyes will be watching to see if it is efficient at both reducing toxicity levels, without disturbing crabs and other creatures living on the pond bottom. Meanwhile, the harvested algae is being trucked to the town’s recycling center for use as compost. At least it sounds like a win-win.

As for sediment removal, while championed by the scientists, it comes with hurdles: namely, cost. Permitting, and removal and disposal of the mud itself, are expensive.

“I think we’re doing all the right things,” says Davison, the foundation’s director. “But the results will be in the data: How much nitrogen and phosphorus are reduced.”

Following the results of their own study, East Hampton Village officials are undertaking their own effort to clean up Hook and Town Ponds. The good news this spring was the announcement of a plan to plant “rain gardens” and bioswales to filter stormwater runoff and reduce nitrogen-loading into the ponds. The village is thinking of this as a longterm effort.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Mayor Paul Rickenbach Jr. said recently, “that with government working with the private sector and other municipal agencies, we will come to the end of the exercise, look at what we achieved, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’ ” 

This, however, is an issue in its infancy. We’re only now becoming aware of the extent of the problem, and will only be able to save the ponds if we think boldly.

On an overcast afternoon last month, Linda James gazed toward Hook Pond, where uncut grass billowed in the breeze.

“My dog used to swim in the pond,” she said. “I wouldn’t allow her to go down by it now. I’m not sure I’m going to bring back the kayak flotilla,” she said. She was silent for a long moment. “We’ll see.”

One day soon, we hope.

Christopher Walsh