Havens Beach, the Sag Harbor swimming spot that has been less popular since traces of fecal matter and other bacteria were found in the water in 2007, will be free of heavy machinery and dark brown water in mere days.
For more than 20 years, according to Mayor Brian Gilbride, debate swirled among residents about the safety of Havens Beach, with some warning that swimming in the water would cause rashes, ear infections and eye irritation. Often, the Suffolk County Department of Health would shut down the beach after heavy rains for fear of contamination.
After a long history of testing by the Department of Health, as well as by Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, who would test the water directly after a heavy rain to measure the runoff, the Village Board decided something had to be done about the elevated levels of fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria.
At issue was a 24,000-square-foot drainage ditch that led from Bay Street to Sag Harbor Bay. The ditch’s channel is so large that it runs as long as Havens Beach runs wide.
According to Mr. McAllister, this ditch contained both wastewater from the septic tanks of “a couple of hundred homes,” as well as regular stormwater runoff containing fertilizer, fuel, animal droppings and “anything else that is lying on the road. Everything was emptying into this ditch.”
A three-pronged approach to filtering the ditch water, costing $499,000, was approved by the village more than a year ago. Now, full implementation of the plan is days away.
“I’ve worked on a few of these remediation jobs,” said Keith Grimes, owner of the contracting company Keith Grimes Inc., which won the bid for the project at $373,968. “I look back at some of them and I ask myself if the undertaking was worth it, because the difference is kind of invisible. But here, I mean, you can see the difference it’s going to make.
“The muck coming into the water was dark as ink—and that is when it was liquid,” he continued. “You had two flavors, black liquid and black slush,” he joked on Monday, before motioning to the last bit of dark liquid being pumped out of the channel.
Mr. Grimes, Mr. McAllister, and Mr. Gilbride collectively described the construction of the new filtration system. First, a check-dam, which filters out all large debris, was built at the head of the channel. Then five settlement ponds were dug and native vegetation was planted to cover the base of the ditch. That will allow the water to go still, causing solids to drop.
To get to this stage, about 1,500 cubic yards of muck had to be removed and all the liquid drained.
The muck was the topic of a months-long debate by the State Department of Environmental Conservation over whether it could be disposed of at the town’s transfer station, delaying the project even longer. Ultimately, disposal of the muck at the transfer station was approved.
The last part of the plan has the water passing through a cement “AbTech Smart Sponge Plus” vault before heading into Sag Harbor Bay. The way the vault works is, when any bacteria or hydrocarbon passes through, bio-sponges will absorb the molecular material without releasing any pollutants into the water. The original plan called for two of these self-contained filters before being scaled back.
Mr. McAllister, who described the AbTech system to the Village Board, vouched for the effectiveness of the bio-sponge system, even just the one, by saying, “The proof is in the pudding. Their performance data all over the country is top-notch.”
“First and foremost, this three-step approach will certainly lower the levels of bacteria, which is the goal,” said Mike Schiano, an environmental planner for Inter-Science Research Associates, which consults for the Village of Sag Harbor. “But what it will really do is increase the confidence of the residents that the water quality at the beach is top-notch, which is a huge part of why we chose to undertake the project.”
And while the erection of fencing to block off the drainage ditch, to be put up on July 22, is the only piece of the puzzle still missing, it seems Mr. Schiano’s assessment of rising confidence is accurate.
“Havens used to be such a lovely beach for children and families to swim. It’s wonderful to know the water is going to be safe again and we don’t have to worry anymore after a couple of decades,” said Joan Rosenbaum, a Sag Harbor resident found sunbathing at the beach on Monday. “I’m so grateful because this beach can be a beauty again.”
Calling it the “former poster child for stormwater runoff pollution,” Mr. McAllister loves that his suggestions were taken into account and that the issues are finally resolved.
“Despite all the previous issues, these trustees listened to the voice of the village, they took action and I commend them. I’m quite pleased that it’s all over,” said Mr. McAllister.
“I’ll just be glad when all the equipment is gone and the fence is up,” said Mr. Gilbride.