Residents Raise $359,000 to Study Ailing Georgica Pond

Dr. Chris Gobler with graduate students Jennifer Jankowiak and Ryan Wallace
Dr. Chris Gobler with graduate students Jennifer Jankowiak and Ryan Wallace

Homeowners on Georgica Pond in East Hampton want to know what’s causing algal blooms there and have raised $359,000 to study the complicated body of water so they can stamp out the problem.

The residents have enlisted Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., from the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and his team to monitor changes in water quality and to deduce the factors that contribute to the proliferation of algae—some of which is toxic.

Georgica Pond. Photo credit: Cully/EEFAS
Georgica Pond. Photo credit: Cully/EEFAS

Annie Hall, a resident of the west side of Georgica Pond and a spokeswoman for the concerned homeowners, explains that in 2012 her Jack Russell terrier died of neurotoxic shock after drinking pond water. That event prompted the East Hampton Town Trustees to begin regular monitoring of the water. The water quality looked OK in 2013, according to Dr. Gobler. But then in the summer of 2014, elevated blue-green algae levels led to the Trustees prohibiting shellfishing, crabbing and swimming there.

“I have six children; they all grew up there crabbing all summer and all of a sudden they couldn’t do that,” Hall says. The same day crabbing was closed, she called the Invisible Fence company to keep her dogs away from the water, and she and her neighbors kept children away from the pond too.

“The activity on the pond was way down last summer…” Hall says. “It’s not a risk you’re going to take with your children.”

Hall and Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle, who lives on the east side of the pond, organized a meeting for homeowners on Labor Day weekend in 2014 to see what could be done.

Among the denizens of Georgica Pond are film director and producer Steven Spielberg and MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc. CEO Ronald Perelman. President Bill Clinton summered there in both 1998 and 1999.

Perelman and wife Anna Chapman made the lead gift toward the Georgica Pond study, and others kicked in so Dr. Gobler and his team, including Stony Brook graduate students, could commit effort and resources.

Dr. Gobler has been working with the Trustees since 2012 to monitor Georgica Pond, but the new endeavor is more intensive than any other project he has done.

His team will use advanced techniques, including DNA sequencing, to get a batter handle on what’s in the water and what kind of toxins they are making, Gobler says. A real-time monitoring buoy will reveal moment-to-moment changes in water quality.

Georgica Pond has a number of unique characteristics and issues.

“It opens to the ocean, but only for part of the year, and so it’s a very dynamic system,” Dr. Gobler says. The salinity is lower than any other saltwater system he has seen on Long Island—but not so low that the pond could be called freshwater.

Georgica Pond harbors a group of blue-green algae that is different than any other system he’s seen, he says.

Adding to the complication is the watershed, which includes residences, farms and significant tributaries.

Gobler says his team will be examining the relative importance of fertilizer, wastewater, atmosphere and other contributors of excess nutrients in the pond, and will examine the ways nitrogen and phosphorus reach the pond, such as through groundwater, streams and surface runoff.

At present, water quality has been good, Gobler says. He attributes it to Georgica Pond being open to the ocean. The Trustees opened a channel in January to flush the pond. The channel closes itself over time.

“Problems typically arise once the pond closes, and in fact we’re already getting early signs that there are problems emerging,” Gobler says. He points out that there are already signs of algae in Georgica Cove, a tributary on the southeast side of the pond.

“We’re going to be looking very carefully to see if, when and how things deteriorate,” he says.

Historically, the Trustees have only opened Georgica Pond to the ocean in March and October. The January opening this year was a new practice, the results of which are still to be seen.

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