For nearly 350 years, a group known as the town trustees, created by the King of England in 1688, has overseen the upkeep of the three magnificent ponds in the Hamptons that stick down like daggers between Montauk Highway and the Atlantic Ocean: Georgica, Sagg and Mecox.
The trustees are elected officials — one group in East Hampton, another in Southampton (and a third in Southold) — who are completely separate from the town boards of those three towns. They have separate offices, their own small budgets and their own enforcement agents, and are answerable only to the townspeople, who own those pond bottoms.
The trustees not only oversee the three pond bottoms, they also oversee all lakes, bays, streams, and river bottoms in the towns. So if you throw garbage into any of these waters, you will be ticketed and fined by the trustees, not the town.
Visitors are largely unaware of the distinction between the towns and the trustees. But once a year, when the level of the water in the three ponds gets toward overflowing, people become aware of what they do. The trustees cut a narrow temporary trench through the sandy beach between the southern coastline of each pond and the Atlantic Ocean to let the water out. This cut is only a few hundred yards in length.
On the day the ponds are let, the public is told to stay away as backhoes and earthmovers are out there doing the job. After that, people can come down to the cut to swim across it or fish in it or ride the current on a raft (at their own risk) or just set up a folding chair and enjoy watching the overflowing water drain, wildly at first then slower and slower until it stops.
Early Southampton town records offer numerous mentions to the letting of the ponds. The first entry appears in 1644, a generation before the king’s edict formalized the operation. That year, the town magistrates ordered that “every one in the say’d town from 16 years old to 60 … in their own persons shall be ready so often in the yeare to cutt open sufficiently a gut at meacoxe …”
In 1652, an entry reports that settler Isack Willman “in a passionate manner said that some of them … knew noe more what belonged to the sepoose than a dog.” (The word “seapoose” in the Shinnecock language translates to “small river.”) On September 19, 1905, it was noted that five teams of horses pulled on plows for three hours one afternoon to make the cut.
Why make the cut? Left by itself, a pond takes in fresh water from driving rains and inland streams. When it overflows, it floods the area around it, including shoreline basements, then washes over the three ponds’ southern shore to rush out into the sea, carving away that southern shore so severely that when it’s done, the ocean rushes in and fills it partially with salt water. Pond creatures do not do well when a pond is constantly changing its salinity. But when it is kept partly salty and brackish, oysters and clams thrive in great abundance. The trustees make the cut to keep it that way. More food for the table.
Many think the Shinnecocks were letting the pond even before the white men arrived. The Indians had shown the newly arrived settlers how to plant and harvest corn and potatoes. It’s possible they also showed them how they got clams and oysters to thrive in great abundance.
Since the 1970s, when many state and federal environmental regulations went into effect, inspectors with clipboards from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have agreed that the trustees were in charge of the Mecox Bay bottom. But they were not in charge of the top. Excess water removal is on the top. The trustees would have to get a DEC permit to let the pond every 10 years, but in 2016, no new permit was forthcoming.
Was there something wrong? The DEC said they wanted to look into this further. They had hired experts. They were doing studies. They were expecting reports.
That year, Mecox Bay was never let. The result was an almost total die-off of the oyster and clam population in Mecox Pond. In 2017, there was still no DEC permit. As a result, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman declared a state of emergency.
“It’s hard for me to believe that these environmentalists want to see the wholesale destruction of this ecosystem,” he told The Southampton Press. The toxic red tide arrived that year. But his emergency powers, he was told, would only last for one year, and only for a single trench 10 feet across, not the necessary 100 feet across.
Since that time, Schneiderman has issued four more emergency permits, one each for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. But with the narrow trench, he is slowly losing the battle. Mecox Bay, after the modest restoration in 2017, suffered further salinity imbalance, more red ride and tens of thousands of tons of beach sand, drifting from east to west down the beach as it usually does, to slide into Mecox Bay, largely stopping it up. This is sand that oceanfront homeowners from Georgica to Water Mill have paid $15 million to have dumped in front of their homes to keep them safe.
Finally, four weeks ago, the DEC granted a multiyear permit to the trustees for a proper cut. But not for 10 years — just for five. And only if they can get the “cut” made before the April 1 start date when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows the piping plover birds to begin nesting on Hamptons beaches. No cut allowed after those particular endangered birds arrive.
So this year’s cut was rushed through.
Explaining why the permit was for five years rather than 10, DEC Deputy Permit Administrator Sheri Archer offered this bureaucratic gibberish:
“… Due to the dynamic nature of the environmental conditions at the site, we have made the determination that the initial term of the permit will be five years.”
Not to mention that the crazy dynamic nature was entirely caused by the DEC.
Hey. Earthworms in farm fields, many of them endangered, cry out and die a horrible death when farmers plow fields to prepare their acreage for spring planting.
So much remains to be regulated by the DEC.