Reporter Editorial: Funding for estuary program in jeopardy

MARTIN BURKE PHOTO First light over Peconic Bay from Silver Beach.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO First light over Peconic Bay from Silver Beach.

What makes the East End of Long  unique is its farmland, salt creeks and Peconic Bay. They draw people here and keep them here.

From the point where the Peconic River enters the bay in Riverhead all the way past Shelter Island to Gardiners Bay, this stunning body of saltwater is a great resource on many levels.

Open, preserved lands that run to saltwater, as there are here, are a testament to generations of people who refused to watch it all disappear.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Peconic Bay’s designation as a federally recognized estuary. That designation came in the wake of several years of a destructive brown tide, which first appeared in the bays in 1985.

The tide turned the deep blue color of the bay into something that looked like coffee. It was an ugly sight. The brown tide essentially choked the bay, decimating its world-famous scallop crop and shocking a region into action.

The estuary designation prevented threats to the bay from worsening, and most concede there is still a great deal of work to be done regarding runoff and the slow, destructive flow of nitrogen into groundwater from antiquated septic systems at thousands of East End  homes. Suffolk County is trying to deal with that issue by offering homeowners financial incentives to install modern new systems that keep nitrogen from polluting groundwater.

Congress established the National Estuary Program in 1987, with Long Island Sound part of the original effort. The western part of the Sound has long been threatened, and in recent years many environmentalists have also feared for the well-being of the eastern Sound.

Local activists and members of the Suffolk County Legislature — including then-Legislator Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag harbor) pushed to have Peconic Bay included in the estuary program. When it happened 25 years ago, Peconic Bay became the 18th estuary system in the nation to be added to the program.

Federal funds to the region soon followed.

While budget fights in Congress are routine, this year’s federal budget, as envisioned by the Trump White House, does not include any funding for the National Estuary Program for fiscal year 2018. Last year, Congress authorized $26.5 million for the program, with individual programs receiving about $600,000.

To proponents of our bay, a budget proposal with nothing at all for the estuary program is more than troubling.

“This year, things are pretty tenuous,” said Alison Branco, director of the Peconic Estuary Program, adding that “this is a scary time for us.”

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) knows the value of the program and said he feels confident there will be funding. “It’s an issue that transcends partisan politics,” he said.

Every Islander has to agree.