The community of homes that sit on the shores bordering exclusive Georgica Pond is occupied by some of the wealthiest and most prominent people in America. Ron Perelman lives here. Steven Spielberg lives here. Martha Stewart lives here. A road runs round the pond, but you can’t see the pond from it. The mansions are between the road and the pond for the entire three miles of its semi-circle, and because the mansions each sit on 10 or 15 wooded acres, unless you are invited by someone living on it and have permission to negotiate the many winding gravel driveways, you probably have never seen the water there.
In the summertime, most of the residents keep a catboat tied up to a dock leading down their lawns. For a long time, the catboat was a particular class of single-sail boat whose boom was angled on the mast. They made a flotilla worthy of Renoir when several were sailed around the pond through a breeze at the same time. Powerboats are, of course, prohibited.
Nature has a strong presence in the pond. Fish, birds and crabs abound. Ducks play on its surface. Eels and turtles are below. Sometimes snowy white mute swans come to enjoy the scene. It is a fine time to sit quietly in folding chaise lounges out on the lawns of these mansions to read a book, have a drink and watch the world at play in the pond.
In recent years, however, the water in the pond has caused new problems for these residents. The water goes into the pond when it rains and when underground streams empty into it. But there is no outlet, unless the pond overflows its banks. Before European settlers came, the land around the pond was swampy, buggy and not of much use. Only when the water got high enough for the overflow to connect the pond to the ocean did the water spill out. The native people just lived further inland.
Not so the early white settlers. They formed a governing group called the Trustees, and when the pond got high, all able-bodied men were required to go down to the pond with shovels and help dig a ditch to connect the pond with the sea so the water could flow out in a controlled fashion. With that, the swamp turned into fertile ground. Good for planting crops. There’s reference to all this in the early town records. The church bells would call the men to the beach. If you didn’t come, it meant time in the stocks as punishment.
For 200 years that twice-a-year work was done without problem. The combustion engine was invented. Now a steam shovel could dig the ditch. Then the wealthy people from the city came to build summer homes there. And a little tension rose up between the summer people and the Trustees when the Trustees failed to act to lower the pond when the summer people felt their lawns getting soggy and saw their basements leaking. But there was the salinity of the pond to consider, and the Trustees, the keepers of the pond for the owners of the pond bottom—the townspeople—had to hold off “letting” it until that was just right for the creatures that lived on it and in it.
The Trustees were in Town Hall last week to go over things with the Town Board, another government group that regulates just about everything except for the ponds, bays and beaches, which are controlled by the Trustees.
The issue was permits. And who is in charge.
The thing is that global warming; chemical changes in the pond, rising tides, the addition of exotic and non-indigenous plantings and sewage leaking out of cesspools from around the pond have combined to form a toxic stew in the water in warm weather. And though the Trustees are still in charge, they have not been able to successfully deal with it. In fact, nobody has been able to deal with it. So something has to give way.
In the recent past, when the County or the Town or the DEC or the Army Corps of Engineers has been called in to deal with a crisis along the pond’s shoreline, the Trustees have been giving out permits after reviewing things. But sometimes they give permits out calling it a temporary fix, because it is contrary to Trustee law. But they have to. Flooding might ensue. Or people might get sick if they don’t.
The specific new troubles for Georgica Pond started about 20 years ago, when the landscapers for the rich brought in decorative stands of bamboo to decorate the shorelines here and there. The bamboo, after several years, sent roots out up to 50 feet under the pond bottom, and new bamboo was rising everywhere. It had to be hacked away. The rich ponied up the money to do it. (It blocked the view.) The Trustees gave out permits. The war continues. Some has been removed, some not.
Global warming has brought rising sea levels and wilder high and low tides. It’s affected when to let Georgica. There is pressure to do it more frequently.
Global warming means warmer water in the pond, and that, along with decaying microalgae and what is believed to be dangerous material from storm-water runoff, fertilizers, and seepage from septic systems and cesspools of residents living not just near the pond but further north, has caused red and brown tide in the summertime, in recent years filling the pond with so much algae that the fish and other creatures die off, you can’t swim in the pond and you can’t even, sometimes, sail in it. The red and brown tides have occurred in many ponds and harbors in our area, and no one has come up with a proper plan to control them. But they have been found to create high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the water.
At this meeting last week, most everyone was really in favor of allowing a young scientist to place a paddleboat in the pond that could scoop up the algae as it went along, allowing a partial clearing of the water and also the ability to study the composition of the algae that it scoops to the surface. But the group of homeowners wanted the Trustees to simply sign off on the project so the homeowners could get a permit from the DEC for this work. There would be no Trustees permit at all. This was an important difference, since the Trustees own the water on behalf of the public.
“The first thing the DEC is going to do say is, ‘Who owns the property?” one Trustee said.
“I wonder why you all became Trustees,” one of those opposing the matter asked the group, “if you are giving everything away.”
The vote was 6 to 2 to let the homeowners get a permit from the DEC directly.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Clintons were staying at the Spielberg home, that the pond got “let” all the way to its muddy bottom without the Trustees knowing about it. A reward was offered for information about how this happened. Nobody collected it. Many felt the pond was let by the Secret Service to insure that snoopy photographers couldn’t take snaps of the President from the water.
There was a time, after WWII, when Howard Hughes came out to land his yellow seaplane in the pond. He was courting the daughter of one of the farmers who owned a house there.
There are many other stories about Georgica Pond. But for now, it’s enough to say we live in trying times, and the requirement is to do what has to be done there to make the pond safe and beautiful for the creatures in and around it. (That includes us.) And it is getting harder every year.