This article was published in the East Hampton Star and reposted here for our blog.

Windmill Beach in Sag Harbor, where kids often splash in the water, sees a spike in bacteria levels after heavy rains. Photo by Christine Sampson

September 1, 2022

On Aug. 22, Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force tested the water off Windmill Beach in Sag Harbor and recorded its highest level of enterococcus, a “fecal indicator,” in a year. It was 150 times the number used by the Suffolk Health Department to close a beach, according to Mara Dias, a senior manager for Surfrider’s water quality initiative.

With a level that high, she said, “People shouldn’t go in the water.”

However, the beach remained open, with no signs alerting parents or casual tourists that the water should be avoided.

“How do we get to the bottom of it, and how do we provide warning for people until we do?” Ms. Dias wondered. “If you have high enterococcus levels, it’s probably fecal contamination and an entrance to all the pathogens associated with that.”

“Swimming in contaminated water can lead to recreational water illness, with symptoms including gastrointestinal illness, ear infections, skin rashes, and potentially worse,” according to surfrider.org.

Surfrider has been testing Windmill Beach for the last year. While it may not be a beach where families would spend an entire day, Ms. Dias said it was selected for testing because “people grab an ice cream or coffee nearby while their kids splash around there for a while.” It is heavily used.

The spike at Windmill Beach tracks with across-the-board increases in enterococcus levels at almost all the sites tested by the Concerned Citizens of Montauk on the same day, Aug. 22. Six sites in Montauk, including four on Lake Montauk, one at the Surfside Place outflow pipe, and one at the Soundview Drive culvert, eclipsed the testing parameters.

In all, 17 test sites in Montauk reported high levels of bacteria on that day, which supports the argument that such spikes are at least partly attributable to stormwater runoff. August 22 was the last day the East End received any measurable amount of rain.

A “watershed” is any area that drains into a body of water. The watershed for Windmill Beach is particularly troublesome as far as feces are concerned. “All of Main Street, and all the downpipes from the buildings drain into Windmill Beach,” said Aidan Corish, a village trustee, in a phone interview. “We know this is an issue there after heavy rainfall, and we’re working on a way to mitigate that.”

Enterococcus bacteria are plentiful in the digestive systems of humans, dogs, and even birds. Thoughtless dog owners who don’t pick up after their dogs, and shameless birds, are both potential sources of the bacteria.

“There’s a lot of canine waste that shows up in the testing in the summer,” said Mayor Jim Larocca.

According to Surfrider’s website, “One dime-sized piece of dog waste contains 23 million fecal coliform bacteria,” which could include not only enterococcus, but also E. coli.

What can be done?

Mr. Corish says the village has committed $25,000 to look at surface water runoff and how different watersheds interact with the village’s four outflow pipes, one of which is at Windmill Beach. “We’re working with Cameron Engineering to try to develop solutions,” he said.

What is learned from that study will provide a base of knowledge that will help the village apply for water quality grants. “This stuff is eye-wateringly expensive,” said Mr. Corish. “Most of the pollutants come in the first flush after a rain. Designing a system that can take that first wash of rain, thousands of gallons over a very short period of time, and filtering them, is an engineering challenge.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a map that is updated each Thursday to show the location and intensity of drought across the country, the entire South Fork is currently in a “severe drought,” which exacerbates the runoff problem when rain does fall. The increased time between rain showers allows more bacteria to build, and the ground becomes less absorbent. When rain does come, it’s often fast and furious, which makes the “first flush” that Mr. Corish spoke of an even greater issue.

Human waste is another potential source of enterococcus in the water. The sidewalks and roads of Sag Harbor are more crowded than ever, as are its docks. Could boats be dumping their waste?

Mayor Larocca cast heavy doubt on that theory. “We monitor and make surprise visits to boats with the bay constable,” he said. “In July there were 14 yachts that were given unscheduled visits, and 100 percent of them were fully compliant. If you’re operating your system appropriately, it will be evident. It’s hard to fake it.”

“We have pretty good compliance from the boats, but we’re also attentive and watchful,” the mayor said.

Robert Bori has been village harbormaster for 12 years. “A lot of the yachts have treatment systems on them as good as the sewage plant,” he said. He pointed out that it’s illegal for boats to dump waste in the entire Peconic Estuary System, which runs from Riverhead to Orient Point. Boats must be at least three miles offshore to dump waste.

“The majority of the people use the pump-out service,” Mr. Bori said. Boats in the harbor call the pump-out boat, which has a 600-gallon tank. Waste from the boats is drained and pumped into a 3,500-gallon holding tank in Marine Park. Ultimately, the contents are carted away by a septic truck.

“When we first started doing the unscheduled inspections, we handed out a good number of tickets,” said Mr. Bori. “Ticket writing has really come down a bit over the years. The bacteria at Windmill Beach is more runoff than boat pollution.”

This week, with no rain, Surfrider tested Windmill Beach again and the water was clean. Until the engineers get to work, perhaps it’s best to know your watershed before you take a dip.

With Reporting by Tom Gogola