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Enrico Nardone offers some thoughts on Bellport Inlet and the future barrier island breaches in New York ...

The first thing that struck me on my most recent trip to the Bellport Inlet (a.k.a., New Inlet, or New Old Inlet) was the breakers. Even after a half dozen visits, there’s something about the sight of ocean waves crashing … right there, just beyond the calm waters of Bellport Bay that gives my soul a stir.

My companions on this visit –my daughters (13 and 11) and my nephew (8)– weren’t as impressed. As my soul was stirred by the approach and the spectacle of the inlet coming into full view, they were bemoaning the reduced speed and the fact that the thrill of the boat ride had diminished. But it was their first visit to the inlet. They lacked any understanding of what they were seeing. They had no way to appreciate how fortunate they were to be there. I could ignore their blasé attitudes for now; I was confident the inlet would win them over in the end.

The inlet is, of course, the result of a breach of Fire Island created in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. It was one of several breaches the storm punched through the barrier islands, but because it occurred in the Otis G. Pike Wilderness Area, it was initially left alone while the other breaches were quickly closed pursuant to New York’s “Breach Contingency Plan”. This official policy, authored primarily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, starts with the premise that breaches in barrier islands are dangerous. They cause flooding on the mainland and put people and property at risk. They must be closed as soon possible. So said the official policy.

But the occurrence of a breach in the wilderness area created confusion. Federal legislation prohibits motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. So (given the difficulty of closing breaches with shovels), the new inlet remained open while officials and experts debated. National Park Service officials at the Fire Island National Seashore, to their considerable credit, stuck to their guns. They asked for calm. And time. They held off the Army Corps until scientists could weigh in.

Meanwhile, fear took hold. South Shore flooding occurred during a series of Nor’easters and the call to close the breach got louder. An army of elected officials held a press conference urging closure. But then a strange thing happened: the scientists were heard. Dr. Charlie Flagg of Stony Brook University and his colleagues established that the new inlet wasn’t causing flooding or having a significant impact on tides. And the scientific case was bolstered by a chorus of anglers, boaters, baymen and birders singing praise for the ecological impact the breach was having on eastern Great South Bay. In the end, the inlet was left alone while additional data was collected and an environmental review was conducted. It remains open today, but its future is uncertain.

As I expected, my daughters and nephew eventually came around to enjoy their visit to the inlet. They loved the hundreds of silversides and snappers they temporarily caught with each run of the seine net. They were amazed at the numbers of gulls and terns buzzing overhead and diving into the water. They excitedly ran through the shallows and searched for critters in the nooks-and-crannies of the flood shoals.

For me, the thing about the inlet is its pure, unadulterated wildness. It’s what an inlet should be: ephemeral, dynamic, unpredictable and vibrant. No piles of boulders delineating its contours. No dredge barges visiting to define its channel. And it’s doing what a barrier island inlet should do: exchanging ocean & bay water, flushing the bay, delivering sand to the backside of the barrier island (which it needs to adjust to sea level rise), establishing new habitats, nourishing a thriving tableau of birds, fish and all sorts of marine critters.

It’s these things that have made the Bellport Inlet my favorite place on Long Island. And why I was so thrilled to introduce my young kin to it. I tried to give them a sense of how lucky they were. I told them how few people have even seen a natural inlet on Long Island. And I told them the Bellport Inlet might not be around for long – and there may not be another natural inlet that’s allowed to persist on Long Island for a long time.

The last part is somewhat sad, but true. Some scientists think Bellport Inlet will close naturally within a year or two, others think it’ll take longer. But all agree it will close eventually. It’s what inlets do. Less likely, but possible, is still the chance that it will be mechanically closed. We’re still waiting for the National Park Service to complete their study and announce their official decision about the inlet’s future (most expect them to let it be).

The biggest issue on the table at the moment is the question of future breaches. What happens when the next storm opens a breach and it’s not in the wilderness area? The answer is wrapped up in the “Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Plan” or FIMP, which the Army Corps recently released (after decades). The Breach Contingency Plan has been folded into the FIMP, but it’s not clear that much has changed; even given the fact that Bellport Inlet has undermined the case that breaches are dangerous and must be closed.

If you’re one of the many people that think the Bellport Inlet has done eastern Great South Bay a lot of good, let the Army Corps know. Tell them you think New York should adopt a more nuanced, scientific approach to future barrier island breaches. Tell them you think the ecological benefits to the Great South Bay should be part of the calculus. Public comments on the FIMP are being accepted through September. Let us know if you have any questions or need any assistance.

- Enrico 

Above: Cruising the Bellport Inlet earlier this summer with Captain Anthony Graves and John Turner (2016)

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