The Southampton Town Trustees appear to have reversed, at least temporarily, a decades-old policy regarding the opening and closing of the Mecox Bay “cut,” and have mechanically stopped the flow of water between the bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
In August, bulldozers working for contractors hired by the Trustees took a mountain of sand dredged from the bay’s overwash plain and piled it into a 15-foot-wide, 600-foot-long levee across the north end of the cut area, where an inlet is intermittently dug by the Trustees to allow ocean water to flush the bay.
After the berm was created, overwash of the beachhead created a pond of sitting water between the bay and the ocean. The cut has remained closed since the berm was constructed.
At a meeting on Monday, the Trustees said the pond is nearing the level at which they would normally open it. With the massive beach nourishment project planned for the area, which will make the stretch of sand between the pond and the ocean another 60 feet wider, they said they plan to open it before the work begins.
But the berm, which Trustee Bill Pell estimated cost about $20,000 to construct, will remain.
“This is not a new policy of controlling the inlet,” Trustee Eric Shultz, the board’s president, said of the berm. “This is what the board decided to do in this case, right now. The cut has been running differently since Sandy, and the berm mimics what the effect of the beach would have been pre-Sandy.”
With ocean beaches anemic from the effects of Sandy and the active winter storm season, the cut had been particularly troublesome this year. In March, after the Trustees dug the cut for the first time in several months, the roaring river of water migrated steadily to the west until it was scouring away the foot of dunes across the front of houses on Flying Point Road. The erosion exposed a giant steel wall built in the 1980s after a similar out-of-control cut flow damaged homes. The Trustees forced the cut closed to stanch the flow and stop the erosion that was undermining the steel wall.
When the cut was opened again earlier this summer, it again began migrating, this time to the east, at times reaching inside a hundred feet from the dunes of Scott Cameron Beach and homes to the east. With beaches elsewhere rebuilding in the summer months, the beach east of the cut remained thin.
Mr. Shultz said the Trustees are still discussing how the cut should be managed. The berm construction was voted on by three members of the board, he said: himself, Bill Pell and Ed Warner Jr. Trustee Fred Havemeyer, who has long overseen the Mecox Bay management, and Jon Semlear, who oversees the management of the Sagg Pond cut to the east, were not present for the vote, he said.
For more than a century, the Trustees have cut open the bay to let the head of brackish water out. Over the last 20 years, the Trustees have greatly increased the frequency with which they cut the bay open, typically about a half dozen times a year, to keep salinity levels at the south end of the bay high enough to support the bay’s large oyster population and prevent flooding in the basements of homes along the bay’s rim.
A report by two Stony Brook University scientists in 1986, following the damage to homes west of the cut, recommended that a berm be built across the mouth of the bay, Ms. Schultz said, and that the cut be opened more frequently but closed mechanically after just a few days rather than letting it run for sometimes weeks on end, as had been the Trustees policy.
In the summer of 2000, after the cut stayed open for more than three months, through the heart of summer, and water levels in the bay dropped so low that shorelines were just exposed mud a hundred feet wide, neighbors complained loudly that the conditions prevented them from enjoying their waterfront. The Trustees argued that their policy was to let the cut close on its own, and that mechanically controlling the cut was not feasible.
Mr. Shultz said that while no decision has been made, that policy is being reconsidered in light of the problems the cut cause this year.
Mr. Havemeyer, who said he is no longer in charge of the Mecox Bay cut, said that despite the intermittent difficulties the old policy had resulted in a healthy bay. “I worked out a formula over the years where Mecox had a very small failure rate, and Mecox has never been healthier or more efficient,” he said. “So, we’ll see if what is done there now maintains that.”