Lake Needs a Flush
By Larry Penny
East Hampton Star - Link
Durell GodfreyLake Montauk needs a good dredging so it can breathe again, according to Larry Penny.
Lake Montauk, 1,076 acres in area, used to be the largest lake or freshwater pond on Long Island. Lake Ronkonkoma, which is the largest today, could fit two and one-half times in Lake Montauk. The next-largest, Fort Pond, also in Montauk, could fit more than three times.
Yes, Lake Montauk was the largest by far, but not the deepest. In fact, today it is among the shallowest of Long Island water bodies, averaging about 5 feet in depth and barely reaching a little over 11 feet deep in a few holes at its southwestern part.
That was recently determined by William Walsh, a surveyor who drafted the first known bathymetric map of the lake. The inlet and channel, maintained by periodic dredging, reach 12 to 14 feet deep in places. For centuries prior to its permanent connection to Block Island Sound in the 1920s, the lake frequently overflowed into the sound or was seapussed out by the Montauketts or the white settlers who followed them.
While it was the largest pond on Long Island, for a long time it was one of those most bereft of freshwater fish. Long Island never had many native freshwater fish; at least half of those today, such as the largemouth and smallmouth basses, were introduced.
Lake Montauk is at a great distance away from the Hudson River and New Jersey river drainages, and was among the last of the ponds to be reached by freshwater species that managed to get across the East River and settle on Long Island.
The species known as “osmoregulators,” which can fare well in both seawater and freshwater, were among the first to populate Long Island’s freshwaters after the glaciers receded. Thus, Lake Montauk probably had alewives, American eels, white perch, striped bass, white bait, and killifish from the get-go.
Once permanently opened, however, it quickly became a haven for many marine fish, among them winter flounder, tomcod, cunners, silversides, sand eels, sticklebacks, several killifish species, and others.
Large schools of squid also moved in and out of the lake during the spring and summer. In fact, it became a favorite breeding ground for winter flounder, which, unlike most of our other locally breeding saltwater fishes, spawn in the coldest months of the year.
When Carl Fisher was developing Montauk to become the greatest seaside resort in New York State, he also had great plans for the lake, not just permanently opening it to the sea, but connecting Star Island to the mainland by a roadway and dredging a boating channel all the way around the lake’s periphery. Before he went bust in the stock market crash of the late 1920s, he did manage to create the permanent opening and build a causeway to the island.
Once opened, not only did Lake Montauk lose its former name, Great Pond, by which it was known on United States government maps prior to the 1900s, but it became Montauk Harbor on the federal maps that ensued, such as the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Map of Montauk issued in 1933.
In addition to the marine fish that quickly made the lake a part-time or permanent home, the bottom became covered by eelgrass, which supplanted the freshwater aquatic plants that had covered it previously. In fact, the eelgrass did so well in Lake Montauk, producing blades that reached to the surface from depths of six feet or more, it once covered just about every square inch of bottom.
As has been the case for so many other Long Island tidal water bodies, the eelgrass population in Lake Montauk has been thinning in the last two decades. But it is still holding on — in fact, a few new beds have sprung up on the east side of Star Island directly in line with the surge of each incoming tide.
As eelgrass has waned, Codium fragile (also called Sputnick grass or green fleece), a foreigner from Asia that made it to this coast by way of Europe, has supplanted the former over much of the contemporary bottom.
Larry Liddle, a marine algologist who is now retired but who was a professor at Southampton College for 30 years, has been studying the algae of Lake Montauk during the past year. He has come up with quite a list.
While some contend that eelgrass is the best bottom cover for our temperate marine shallows, algae also carry on photosynthesis and charge the water with oxygen in the process, as well as provide cover and food for many fishes and invertebrates. The last time scallops were harvested in Lake Montauk in any quantity, they were found in beds of green fleece as much as in eelgrass.
Dr. Liddle also discovered a second non-native alga, Asian foliose red alga, growing in the lake, which over time could become quite a concern.
On Sept. 30 of last year, while examining a dock to be rebuilt along the lake’s east side, we found the dreaded Japanese colonial tunicate. It had been discovered a few weeks earlier by Bob Valenti for the first time in the Peconic Estuary — clogging MultiAquaculture’s intake drawing water from Napeague Bay. Mark Abramson and Dr. Liddle also reported seeing abundant Japanese shore crabs along the lake’s edges.
Over the past 10 years, Lake Montauk has been visited by a manatee from Florida, a basking shark from the ocean, a river otter or two, and maybe even a beaver. It’s always housed many muskrats, and, not too long ago, was home to a mink or two. Mallards and Canada geese breed along its shores, and a plethora of waterfowl overwinter in it each year.
Several streams run into the lake on all sides, the most persistent of which, it seems, is Peter’s Run, emanating from the hilly region on the north side of the Montauk Downs golf course, twisting and turning a mile or so until running under West Lake Drive and on into the lake. It’s shown in the spot where it is situated now on an 1838 U.S. coast map of Montauk. The watershed for the lake takes up half of Montauk, almost 1,000 acres.
The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that the lake cannot entertain one more drop of pollutant. East Hampton Town is trying to make “not one more drop” a promise, but it will be a tough and costly row to hoe. The Army Corps of Engineers also needs to help.
Things have changed since the 1920s. More and more junk has been flowing into the lake as the shore’s watershed has been visited by more and more development. The inlet and channel need a big-time dredging to let the bad water out and the good water in.
The lake has advanced emphysema. It needs to give up smoking and take in fresher air if it is to survive. It needs Joe the Plumber to come and flush it out. After studying the lake for the last eight years, upward and downward, sideways and back again, the corps tells us we now have to wait until 2013 to dredge. Three years is a long wait, and the lake might not be able to abide that long.