The Peconic Estuary now has one more organization devoted to its protection, one that draws from natural resource experts in all the towns and villages on the East End.
The Peconic Estuary Protection Committee, approved through an intermunicipal agreement established by the Suffolk County Legislature last year, officially kicked off its work in late October, but the group’s coordinator, Rachel Gruzen, has been working since early this year to coordinate efforts to protect the bays.
The committee was formed at the urging of representatives of the Peconic Estuary Program, whose director, Alison Branco, works under the Suffolk County Health Department’s Office of Ecology. Ms. Branco spearheaded the effort by visiting each of the East End towns to ask them to begin this partnership.
“This has been several years in the making. The Peconic Estuary Program was one of the big initiators of this committee,” said Ms. Gruzen on Nov. 6. “There was enthusiasm from several towns and villages and we finally signed the agreement in early 2015.”
The committee is funded through the individual towns, villages, Suffolk County and the state Department of Transportation. It is modeled after several Long Island protection committees, including the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee, which has been working to restore Hempstead Harbor for 20 years.
“This intermunicipal agreement is very much a milestone. It’s a good balance of local rule and intermunicipal partnerships,” she said. “It helps bring issues to members’ attention, and it’s an opportunity to share resources and knowledge. The Peconic Estuary is a shared resource. We’re all touching this water body. We’re all contributors to its health, and to its degradation.”
“We’re in our nascent stage, building relationships,” she added.
The committee has put together a work plan that begins with helping East End towns and villages comply with EPA stormwater regulations that govern Municipal Seperate Storm Sewer Systems, or MS4s.
Among those requirements are public education, helping property owners learn how to contain stormwater on their properties and urging members of the public to pick up pet waste, which can wash into the bays.
The committee is pooling Geographic Information System data from throughout the East End to create a “living nitrogen model” of where high levels of nitrogen are entering the bays, where they can set off harmful algae blooms.
Ms. Gruzen, who had worked for The Nature Conservancy, is working with the committee’s GIS working group to feed data from the towns into several established nitrogen mapping models.
This project begins, she said, with creating Geographic Information Systems that are based on the same parameters.
“They need to talk to each other and have a consistent lexicon,” she said. “We’re mapping sewerage infrastructure and watersheds to make sure the modeling is as accurate as possible.”
She said that, after the model is complete, the committee will pursue grant funding for projects that will have the greatest positive impact on the estuary.
The committee is also developing a Quality Assurance Project Plan, or QAPP, to train municipal staff to collect data in compliance with state Department of Environmental Conservation standards.
This project may benefit Southold Town, where numerous creeks are closed to shellfishing, not because they are unsafe, but because the DEC doesn’t have the manpower to regularly test them.
“We have many healthy water bodies, and we want to make sure the healthy bays remain open and make sure we’re allocating resources to conduct restoration where it’s most needed,” she said.
“There is concern about threats to the waterways and declines in natural resources, but we still have a very healthy estuary, which is rare along the U.S. seaboard,” she added. “The committee wants to see it remain that way. There have been many success stories in the last 10 years.”