Dan Rattiner's Stories

Mecox Inlet: A New Cut Forms as Mother Nature Has Her Way at Mecox

At high tide, is not deep enough for boating. At low tide, it’s almost empty.

Many celebrities own mansions directly on beautiful Mecox Bay. It’s secluded, peaceful and quiet. There is fishing, clamming and boating in the pond, and the ocean beach is just a barefoot walk away. Among those living on or near Mecox Bay include Rick and Kathy Hilton, Alan Alda, Jennifer Lopez and Ramona Singer. Homes sold there can bring tens of millions of dollars.

But now there is trouble at Mecox. It began on April 2, when the ocean, usually separated from the pond by a sandbar, began pouring water into it at high tide and flushing out the water at low tide, in a way that the local trustees have been unable to stop. No one can recall this ever happening like this. The immediate result, after more than three months, is that Mecox, even at high tide, is not deep enough for boating. At low tide, it’s almost empty. Mother Nature is having her way with it, and the long-term result could be that Mecox might permanently turn into Mecox Inlet. With global warming, the seas are rising, as you know. And here it’s been all this time with no end in sight.

If there’s an upside to this, it’s that Mecox is now great for clamming and fishing. Wear waders. The creatures of the sea—eels, fluke, stripers, clams, bluefish—are now abundant here, because they thrive in the saltier sea water now in the bay.

The current situation may be exacerbated by the global-warming phenomenon, but the fact is that humans have meddled with the water in Mecox several times a year, opening it and closing it, for a very long time. It’s an artificial arrangement. But it’s not an artificial arrangement set up by the rich around it. It was set up by the original settlers in 1644 when they first got here.

Way back then, the Indians stayed away from Mecox because it was just a big, buggy swamp. It would naturally fill up from underground streams, fill to the brim and then overflow its banks to trickle through the swamps. Finally, it would get high enough that, on its own, it would overflow into the sea for a while. Then it would stop.

The English settlers decided to turn the swamps into rich, arable farmland. Every six months or so, they’d have the town church bells rung, which meant every able-bodied man had to immediately come down to the ocean with shovels and picks to join in a community effort to artificially “let” Mecox. In half a day, they would have a ditch dug in the sand linking the sea to a spot just at the edge of it.

Then they’d shovel through that edge, and Mecox would “let” out its water in a great rush until it was nearly empty, an event that might take five hours. When it was done, they’d go into the breach and shovel back in the sand they’d removed, to close it. Then they’d go home. And if you didn’t come when the church bell rang? Slackers would be sentenced to time in jail or in the stocks, so they wouldn’t soon do that again.

This artificial opening and closing of Mecox has continued on for nearly 400 years. The trustees, elected officials, meet and decide when to do it. When let, the salinity becomes saltier. When sealed, it becomes more like fresh. They consider the needs of the fish and shellfish, and also of the residents, since sometimes the pond is so high it is flooding yards, septic systems and basements—they get an earful from the residents—and they decide.

I spoke for a while with Bruce Stafford, one of our trustees.

“We let Mecox on April 2,” he told me. “Usually we don’t like to do it in April because that’s when many birds arrive, mate and nest. But it got really high with the winter rain, and we had to. We let it for five hours, then sealed it up with the sand we had dug, then we left.

Two days later, Mecox was back open. The sea opened it. And now we can’t close it. Not only because we don’t have the sand anymore, or that the sea will just reopen it, but because endangered birds, least terns and piping plovers, are nesting near the cut and we are not permitted by the DEC or the Fish and Wildlife Service to disturb them. It’s the noise our heavy equipment makes. We could get arrested. I mentioned the helicopters make a lot of noise, they said that’s not our department. Well, it’s in the hands of Mother Nature now.”

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