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Friday, 21 June 2019 16:37

West Brook Pond Dam Failure

WestBrook North 

June 21, 2019

(VIA EMAIL: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

George Gorman, Regional Director

NYSOPR – Long Island Region

625 Belmont Ave

West Babylon, NY 11704

RE:     West Brook Pond Dam

Dear Director Gorman:

We recently visited the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River to examine the site where the dam has failed at West Brook Pond. We are writing to urge the NYSORP Regional Office to leave the dam in its current state and allow West Brook to run freely. The situation presents a rare opportunity to reconnect a coastal stream and restore natural riverine conditions. Doing so would generate a host of ecological benefits, including the creation of more diverse riparian habitat and the potential for restoration of river herring to the Connetquot River tributary.

In its current state, West Brook (while certainly still impacted by road and rail crossings) is now fully connected; that is, there are no complete barriers to wildlife migration or movement. For the first time in well over a hundred years, native species such as Alewife, Blueback Herring, American Eel, Brook Trout and River Otter have full, unfettered access to the full reach of the waterway. It is now one of only a few fully connected rivers or streams on Long Island! We strongly recommend that the Regional Office seize this rare opportunity to allow this unique situation to persist.

The following is a more detailed review of the opportunities and issues presented by the situation at West Brook:

Diadromous Fish

Like the many other coastal rivers and streams on Long Island, West Brook was once an important part of the native landscape, providing habitat and resources for countless riverine and terrestrial species. As a tributary of the Connetquot River, it was also an integral part of the coastal ecosystem: the creek helped to connect upland habitats with Great South Bay and the broader marine ecosystem, providing a critical avenue for the movement of sediments, nutrients and species between fresh and saltwater.

An important part of the connection that streams like West Brook provided was the unique fish that move between fresh and marine waters. This category of fish, known as diadromous fish, split their life cycles between fresh and salt water. Long Island’s rivers and streams weren’t large enough to support salmon (the most well-known diadromous species), but they did host annual migrations of river herring (both Alewives and Blueback Herring) and American Eels. Each spring, “runs” of river herring migrated in from the ocean to spawn in freshwater. Around the same time, juvenile American Eels, hatched a year earlier in the middle of the Atlantic, would arrive to run up into the rivers and streams where they would spend several decades before reversing the trip and swimming thousands of miles into the ocean to spawn.

Critically, through their remarkable life cycles, these fish delivered ocean-derived energy and biomass into the waterway and provided important forage for a wide range of species. From Bald Eagles, River Otters and Raccoons that preyed on adult river herring to the myriad other species that benefited from consuming juvenile eels and river herring eggs. Importantly, this influx of energy came at a time, in the early spring, when many other species were completing their own migrations (e.g. Osprey) or had just made it through winter on Long Island (e.g. Harbor Seals).

West Brook

Historical records about diadromous fish are scarce for many of Long Island’s rivers and streams, but biologists expect that they occurred in most of the island’s coastal waterways. In the case of West Brook, however, there is no need to speculate; thanks to the archives at Bayard Cutting, we know that they once poured into the waterway. In fact, as you know, the brackish pool just upstream from where West Brook enters the Connetquot River was known as “Herring Pool”!  Interpretive signage at the property indicates that the family allowed their staff to harvest herring from the pool – a task for which it says they only needed rakes since the waterway was so densely packed with fish!

As you may know, Seatuck (which chairs the Long Island Diadromous Fish Work Group) has been managing the Annual Volunteer River Herring Survey for the past 12 years. While we have not been able to confirm the presence of a “remnant run” of river herring in the Connetquot River (a notoriously difficult place to survey), we have had numerous anecdotal sightings of the fish from both our volunteers and local anglers. We’re confident the fish, particularly Alewife, are moving into the vicinity each spring and could be reestablished in West Brook if the connectivity of the waterway was allowed to persist.

As mentioned above, with the West Brook Pond dam removed, river herring have full access to the full run of the waterway. They would have to navigate a small culvert 50 feet under Montauk Highway, but biologists no longer consider such dark passages to present a migration barrier (in fact, Seatuck recently documented river herring migrating 700 feet through an underground culvert on the Mill River in Rockville Centre!). Once past Montauk Highway, the fish would have easy passage through the sinuous stretch of stream (which has quickly reformed where West Brook Pond formerly existed), under Sunrise Highway and into the impounded (but not fully dammed) section of the stream north of the highway. From there they have access to nearly three-quarters of a mile of additional upstream habitat. The sections of flowing stream combined with partially-impounded “flatwater” would provide excellent spawning habitat for both Alewife and Blueback Herring.

Warm-Water Fish

The draining of the impoundment will certainly result in a loss of habitat for bluegills, bass and other warm-water fish. And it will reduce the availability of recreational fishing opportunities for those interested in pursuing these species. On the other hand, the potential to restore river herring runs and Brook Trout to West Brook and enhance American Eel populations would have offsetting recreational benefits. Increased numbers of river herring and eels, in particular, would generate forage for larger predatory fish in the Great South Bay, including popular sportfishing species such as Bluefish and Striped Bass. In addition, there are numerous other nearby warm-water fishing locations for anglers to enjoy, including Main Pond in Connetquot River State Park, Knapps Lake in Islip and Patchogue and Canaan Lakes in Patchogue.

Birds

Another issue encountered during dam removals is concern for the loss of open water habitat for waterfowl (especially those species that overwinter on Long Island) and associated bird watching opportunities. With regard to the former West Brook Pond, however, these concerns are limited: there is little evidence that the pond provided significant waterfowl habitat or was a popular birding destination.

According to eBird (the popular birding database maintained by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology), West Brook Pond has only had 22 checklists submitted and a total 64 species reported. By contrast, Connetquot River State Park has had 1,366 checklists submitted, with a total species count of 212. The following is a comparison of eBird “high counts” at West Brook Pond and Connetquot River State Park for several common waterfowl species:

eBird High Counts (All Years)

Species

West Brook

Connetquot

American Coot

1

16

Northern Shoveler

1

6

American Black Duck

2

49

Hooded Merganser

2

50

Common Merganser

6

323

Mallard

22

349

Ring-necked Duck

26

300

Canada Goose

85

565

American Wigeon

None reported

60

Lesser Scaup

None reported

400

Green-winged Teal

None reported

37

Canvasback

None reported

35

Ruddy Duck

None reported

150

This data suggests that it is reasonable to assume that the loss of open water habitat will have a minimal impact on waterfowl. Those birds occasionally using the pond can move a short distance to find suitable habitat within Connetquot River State Park or any of the other numerous nearby lakes and ponds. And again, the establishment of freshwater meadows, mudflats and other rare habitats will attract a greater diversity of birds and provide better bird watching opportunities.

Repair & Maintenance

All impoundments fill in over time. When flowing water slows down it loses its ability to carry sediments. These sediments then “fall out” into the bottom of the impoundment and the pond gradually gets shallower. When sunlight can reach the bottom, plants start to grow. This “submerged aquatic vegetation” (SAV) comes in the form of invasive non-native species, such as water chestnut (Trapa natans) and also native species, such as yellow pond lily (Nuphar advena) (which was a problem at West Brook Pond).

SAVs eventually take over impounded waterways, making boating, fishing and other recreational activities difficult and requiring expensive remedies. The Town of Brookhaven has spent more than five million dollars in recent years to address SAVs in two impoundments on the Carmans River. Dealing with the SAVs at West Brook Pond would not only require considerable expense, but it would also be temporary. Eventually, the siltation process would refill the pond and plants would start to grow again.

In addition to the cost of dredging and dealing with SAVs, the Regional Office would also have to address the considerable cost of repairing the dam, which contains extensive crumbling concrete and aging bulkheading. With perhaps some minor exceptions, these repair and ongoing maintenance expenses would be unnecessary if the impoundment was abandoned and West Brook simply left to flow naturally.

NYSOPR’s River Restoration History

Of course, we know that the Regional Office is well versed in the issues raised above and has considerable experience with riverine restoration. Of the three dams that have failed on Long Island in recent years, two occurred within State Parks. The first, where Superstorm Sandy breached a dam Sunken Meadow State Park, has become one of the most celebrated ecological restoration projects on Long Island. The Regional Office’s decision to allow natural stream flow and tidal hydrology to be restored to the site has resulted in a location that attracts abundant wildlife, including one of most active River Otter gatherings on Long Island.

The other, less well known, is the dam failure at the westernmost of the “Northern Ponds” at Hempstead Lake State Park. In not immediately repairing this dam, the Regional Office allowed for the establishment of a unique and ecologically valuable emergent freshwater wetland complex. Seatuck conducted several years of bird surveys of the area for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (as part of the Living with the Bay project). We were repeatedly impressed by the assemblages of birds that the meadows, mudflats and shallow waterways attracted. The rare freshwater habitat attracted an impressive diversity of birds, especially during migration season.

The birds using the location that rely on shallow water and muddy habitat included Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs. Significantly, an eBird report documented a large flock of 425 Least Sandpipers at the location on August 20, 2016. This was the largest number of Least Sandpiper ever recorded in Nassau County. It highlights the value that rare freshwater habitats can have for flocks of migrating shorebirds that require places to rest and refuel during their long-distance journeys.

The Regional Office’s decisions with regard to failed dams at Sunken Meadow and Hempstead Lakes allowed for the transformation of locations with low bird abundance and diversity to thriving habitats with high abundance and diversity – they became two of the most significant wildlife sites on Long Island.

We urge the Regional Office to follow the pattern it has established at Sunken Meadow and Hempstead Lake. West Brook offers a similar opportunity, where positive ecological benefits are likely to occur by not repairing a failed dam. We strongly recommend that the Regional Office seize this rare and unique opportunity to fully reconnect one of Long Island’s coastal streams. We pledge our support and cooperation to do anything we can to help with the restoration of the waterway.

Thank you again for the opportunity to present this information and to engage with the Regional Office in the future of West Brook. Please let us know if you have any questions or require additional information.

Very truly yours,

ENRICO NARDONE, Executive Director                                               

JOHN TURNER, Conservation Policy Advocate

MAUREEN DUNN, Water Quality Scientist

     

CC (VIA EMAIL):

Theresa Santoro, Suffolk County Regional Representative,

     Office of New York State Governor

The Honorable Monica R. Martinez, New York State Senate

The Honorable Todd Kaminsky, New York State Senate,

     Chair, Senate Environmental Conservation Committee

The Honorable Steve Englebright, New York State Assembly,

     Chair, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee

The Honorable Andrew R. Garbarino, New York State Assembly

Brian X. Foley, Deputy Regional Director, NYSOPR, Long Island Region

Annie McIntyre, Regional Environmental Manager, NYSOPR, Long Island Region

Carrie Meek-Gallagher, Regional Director, NYSDEC, Region 1

Kevin Jennings, Regional Habitat Manager, NYSDEC, Region 1

Michele Gibbons, Regional Wildlife Manager, NYSDEC, Region 1

Heidi O’Riordan, Regional Fisheries Manager, NYSDEC, Region 1

Rob Marsh, Natural Resources Manager, NYSDEC, Region 1

Nelson W. Sterner, Executive Director, Bayard Cutting Arboretum

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