The following is in response to my Editor’s Log which appeared in Issue 25. It was written by
Enrico G. Nardone, Executive Director of Seatuck Environmental Association. I would like to point out that costs I’ve referred to in previous articles were suggested by state employees, one who said replacing the dam could cost in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 million dollars. I recently learned that the Edwards Avenue dam in Riverhead was rebuilt with concrete and steel sheeeting at a cost of under 1 million dollars. I was also told costs to restore the pond to a free flowing stream would be between 2 and 3 million dollars.
I am grateful to Fred Golofaro for this opportunity to comment on his recent Editors Log. He accepted my request knowing that I disagreed with him. I respect that, and it turns out we don’t disagree on everything. We agree that allowing the stream to flow won’t improve water quality in the bay or restore shellfish. And we agree there are better ways to improve water quality, mostly by reducing nitrogen inputs from wastewater and fertilizers.
However, regarding the West Brook dam, there’s little common ground. It’s either going to be a free-flowing stream, or it’s not. In my opinion, there is only one reason to rebuild the dam and, while well-meaning, it shouldn’t carry the day (I’ll get to it in a minute.) On the other hand, there are a lot of good reasons to let West Brook run.
From an ecological perspective, there is no good argument for repairing the dam. Before it was dammed, West Brook flowed freely for thousands of years. Over the course of that time, it hosted species (including river herring and sea-run Brook Trout) that required cool, shallow, flowing freshwater. Such streams were an integral part of our coastal ecosystem. The dam, however important or valued, undeniably changed conditions and degraded the stream’s ecological health.
Sure, a fish ladder could help migratory species to some extent, but it wouldn’t remove the thermal barrier a shallow pond presents, or the habitat where non-native predators can thrive. It’s a band-aid, not the restoration the stream deserves. West Brook is one of only a few streams that flows freely from its headwaters to the bay through an undeveloped and protected corridor; it’s a rare riverine gem.
Allowing it to flow also makes economic sense. It’s been suggested that restoring the stream will require expensive sediment removal and tree plantings. It’s simply not true. The extent of the sediment in the former pond site has been overstated (e.g., the old stumps are not buried) and storm water has already pushed a good deal downstream.
Further, no planting is necessary. Seeds of native species have been waiting for the chance to grow, and grow they have! Far from a “dried lake bottom,” the former pond site has actually become one of the most botanically-rich locations on Long Island. Surveys have documented the emergence of a freshwater meadow that includes dozens of unique, and in some cases rare, plant species.
Such habitat, uncommon on Long Island, is important for a diversity of wildlife, including many pollinators and birds. In fact, bird data from eBird (the publicly-sourced database) documents that the site has attracted a greater diversity and abundance of birds over the past year than any other since 2007 (the earliest year for which data exists).
While stream restoration costs would be limited, maintaining the pond would be expensive over the long term. It would eventually (if not immediately) require repair of not only the weir boards and spillway, but also the earthen dam. This is especially true in an era of rising seas, as higher tides and stronger storms increasingly push water up against the dam. Ongoing sediment and invasive species management would also be required. In this sense, keeping the pond is not only contrary to overall ecological health, but also the bigger lift for taxpayers.
In my opinion, as I said above, there’s only one reason to rebuild the dam. And that’s to save a warm water fishing hole. I understand the importance of easy-access locations, especially in helping children connect to the natural world. I also understand the nostalgic attachment people have to such places; I grew up fishing the Susquehanna River and it remains one of my favorite places to visit.
But, that said, for me the choice between non-native fishing opportunities (even nostalgic ones) and ecological health is an easy one. I’ll take restoration every time. If it were up to me, the dam would stay down and West Brook would continue to recover. But it’s not my decision to make, of course. In the end, I hope the powers-that-be consider all input and make a decision that benefits the interests of the most Long Islanders. If they do, they’ll Let West Brook run!