Revitalizing Bonac: Accabonac Protection Committee & Harbor Water Quality Efforts Get a New Boost

Bonac Sunset, Springs
Louse Point Sunset, Accabonac

Newly revitalized with a non-profit status and an energetic board, the Accabonac Preservation Committee began this summer with an eye toward the future of stewardship for Accabonac Harbor, one of the most beautiful places on the East End.

The harbor, which hugs the eastern side of the peninsula that makes up the hamlet of Springs, is the source of much of East Hampton’s Bonac pride — a long tradition of self-reliance, of working the water, and of living in tune with the cycles of nature. The harbor also provides solace for naturalists and artists — the National Audubon Society considers it an Important Bird Area, one of the “major undeveloped coastal wetland ecosystems on Long Island,” while painters like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner have drawn inspiration in their studios surrounding its shores.

Volunteers working with Accabonac Protection Committee have been advocates for the health of the harbor, working with the Nature Conservancy and the East Hampton Town Trustees to test waters for mosquito larvae to convince Suffolk County Vector Control to reduce use of methoprene spraying there, and advocating for water quality measures, including a major breakthrough in mid-July, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced The Springs School, near the headwaters of the harbor, would receive $1.3 million to install a state-of-the-art septic system, said the organization’s new president, Francesca Rheannon, at a July 10 forum on the health of the harbor at Ashawagh Hall.

Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, new Accabonac Protection Committee President Francesca Rheannon, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Kevin MacDonald of The Nature Conservancy, Town Trustee Susan McGraw-Keber and Accabonac Protection Committee member Lisa Ruiz at the July 10 forum
Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, new Accabonac Protection Committee President Francesca Rheannon, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Kevin MacDonald of The Nature Conservancy, Town Trustee Susan McGraw-Keber and Accabonac Protection Committee member Lisa Ruiz at the July 10 forum

The forum, which included talks by marine biologists, coastal scientists, aquaculturists, town planners and landscape designers, gave an overview of many of the challenges facing the harbor, and what is being done to protect it.

Marine biologist Judith Weis kicked off the discussion with a talk about the flora and fauna that are found in the harbor, along with some controversies about proper marsh restoration, sea level rise, and the groundwater-fed nature of Accabonac’s ecosystem.

Phragmites, an invasive tall reed that is abundant in salt marshes throughout the East End, have become the bane of ecosystem restoration specialists’ lives in recent years, but Ms. Weis believes they’ve been unduly demonized.

“With marsh restoration, a newly created marsh is not equivalent to an old natural marsh,” she said. “It can take decades to reach the level a natural marsh has. We get rid of phragmites with herbicides, which lowers the marsh level, and then we replant, but if a little phragmites is left behind, it’s coming back.”

“Lowering marsh level in an era of sea level rise does not make sense,” she added. “Accabonac is not rising up fast enough. Phragmities enable it to rise up faster.”

Ms. Weis praised East Hampton Town for buying up properties surrounding the harbor for preservation, giving the salt marshes surrounding the harbor space to move upland as sea level rises, and urged environmentalist to look into “living shorelines,” planting the eroding edges of marshes with oyster reefs.

Accabonac Harbor has some of the most pristine marshlands on the East End
Accabonac Harbor has some of the most pristine marshlands on the East End

East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Kim Shaw and Environmental Analyst Melissa Winslow discussed the town’s recent work restoring Pussy’s Pond, which sits between The Springs School and Accabonac Harbor, and the town’s upcoming water quality projects, including a brand new program in which they are growing macroalgae in cages near Pussy’s Pond, in the hopes that the algae will consume excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus before the nutrients can cause microalgae blooms in the harbor.

The town has been working since 2014, using a $300,000 grant from New York state, to stabilize the shoreline of Pussy’s Pond using native aquatic plants, creating a 25-foot-wide shoreline buffer and a bioswale that captures rainwater from around Old Stone Highway before it can enter the water body. The town is also installing a permeable reactive barrier across the outlet from Pussy’s Pond into the harbor, which is designed to remove nitrogen from the water.

Ms. Shaw said she hopes that once the school’s septic system is upgraded, it will improve water quality enough to allow the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to open up some long-uncertified waters in Accabonac Harbor to shellfishing.

Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O focused in his presentation on the damaging storms that have damaged the East End’s coastlines, a problem most relevant to Accabonac Harbor on Gerard Drive, on the northwest side of the harbor, which has seen severe erosion in recent years, and where septic systems are now exposed at some beachfront homes.

Pussy’s Pond, between the school and the harbor, recently underwent a major restoration effort
Pussy’s Pond, between the school and the harbor, recently underwent a major restoration effort

Mr. McAllister said the DEC has adopted building guidelines that take into account a likely increase in sea levels of 11 to 30 inches in the next 40 years. He said many homeowners throughout the East End are now responding independently to threats to their own properties, installing shoreline hardening structures that only serve to disrupt the natural flow of sand and cause more damage to their neighbors’ properties.

“It’s a house of cards,” he said. “Those of us who are paying attention see subtle changes now, but it’s going to be more drastic in the future.”

“I take a hard line against armoring of the coast,” he said. “I know it’s a real challenge, and I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but if you consider it as a whole, we have to be very thoughtful about ensuring the integrity of our shorelines.”

Gerard Drive at the mouth of the harbor has been facing severe erosion during winter storms
Gerard Drive at the mouth of the harbor has been facing severe erosion during winter storms

East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery Manager John “Barley” Dunn has been working on community shellfish gardens over the past few years, beginning with a program in Three Mile Harbor in 2016.

This year, the town started a second oyster garden off of Gerard Drive in Accabonac Harbor, which now has 80 members.

Mr. Dunn pointed out that one adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, a great boon for water quality in Accabonac Harbor.

He pointed out several red and blue areas on a map of the harbor — the red are “uncertified” areas, where wild shellfish harvest is prohibited year-round, while the blue areas are open to shellfishing during winter months.

“Maybe we can eliminate or push these back,” he said. “That would be a good goal.”

Edwina von Gal of the Perfect Earth Project is one Springs resident who is growing oysters at her dock, in an area of the harbor that is clean enough for shellfish harvest.

Ms. von Gal, an internationally recognized landscape designer, has devoted much of her time recently to education about natural landscaping practices.

She pointed out that much of that practice involves educating people of the cognitive dissonance of walking across your toxic lawn to harvest the organic kale you might be growing.

“Our entire industry has been built on the “better living through chemistry” idea,” she said. “Why would we think the land we care for is any different than a national park? It’s part of Accabonac, its just a little bit upland. It’s just up to you. All you have to do is make a change.”

Sunset from Louse Point
Sunset from Louse Point

Ms. von Gal said taking care of your land begins with a soil test, so that you can learn what nutrients are missing from the soil, and urged attendees to think of the soil as a biome, similar to the biome in your gut, with beneficial fungi and insects that are essential to the proper functioning of the ecosystem, which is destroyed by conventional  fungicides and insecticides.

She urged attendees to leave their grass clippings on their lawns, to mulch leaves into the lawn, to wait until grass is 3 to 4 inches high before cutting it, and to irrigate seldom and deeply.

Ms. von Gal added that nitrogen-fixing clover is an important part of a healthy lawn, but is an ingredient that is left out of modern lawn seed mixtures because it isn’t resistant to herbicides.

Better yet, she suggested, get rid of your lawn altogether and rely instead on rain gardens and natural woodlands on your property.

“Make a commitment to your property. No cheating,” she said. “There will be moments where we are really tempted, but just say, no, I made this commitment to my property and I will be true. The correct response is never an herbicide. That’s just not that smart. We’re smarter than that.”

Ms. von Gal then displayed a slide of a close-up of a scary insect and asked if anyone could identify it, or if they knew whether it was a pest or a beneficial insect.

“It’s a larval ladybug,” she said. “They eat a lot more aphids than the adults. In fact, most adult insects just exist for sex. Get to know the nymph forms of all your favorite bugs. Let nature make its decisions. Are you afraid of what will happen if you let a shrub do its own thing?”

Ms. von Gal added that The Perfect Earth Project is happy to work with local landscapers to help them learn about becoming certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

“If you have a landscaper, send them to us,” she said. “We’ll convert your landscaper. We don’t want everyone to get fired. Most people apply pesticides because their neighbors do.”

The Accabonac Protection Committee is planning a series of more community forums in the upcoming months. Learn more or make a tax-deductible contribution online at accabonac.org.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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