On the East Coast, we are blessed with some of the most unique bay systems in America. On Long Island’s south shore our bays are protected by a line of barrier islands that run east from the Hamptons to Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island in the west. These barrier islands were once remote and undeveloped being used only by native peoples to feed their families on the bounty of fin and shell fish that could be had on both the ocean and bay sides.
The barrier islands are not continuous and are separated by breaches or openings to the ocean that we call “Inlets’’. Clean, cool, ocean water rushes in and out twice a day flushing the bay system and ideally creating the best habitat for wetlands, bird and waterfowl to thrive, and marine life to grow.
From Colonial times through the late Victorian times nature in the bays seemed in sync. Inlets acted as vital organs of the bays. At times an inlet might close, as did the Old Inlet in Bellport in the 1820s, but new breaches would open to compensate.
An 1802 map of Long Island by Simon Dewitt, which is the first somewhat accurate map of Long Island, shows no less than ten inlets from Coney Island to West Hampton. Coney Island had one, Jamaica Bay two, Hempstead Bay four (The western most portion of Great South Bay including Jones Inlet). There was an inlet in the late 1800s west of Oak Island. This would make it five but other not shown on this map would indicate it opened later. The Eastern part of the bay from Fire Island Inlet east shows four. All these inlets kept these bays healthy.
Slowly both nature and man began to change the dynamics of the Inlet system. In 1893, a major hurricane hit our area fiercely ripping the beaches and flooding downtown Manhattan (and we thought Sandy was the first tuff girl!) This may have closed up one of the two inlets into Jamaica Bay and slowly began to have a negative effect on the bays’ eco system which would continue to worsen as Brooklyn and Queens developed. Today advocacy groups and the National Parks Service at Gateway are doing a hearty job of bringing Jamaica Bay back to life.
The western Great South Bay and its inlets were “redesigned”(hmmm!) by William Reynolds starting in 1906. He dredged a channel, named after himself, on the bay side and closed up two center inlets to make one “long beach’’. The ‘Riviera of the East’’ he called it. Reynolds constructed a massive board walk using elephants as labor and then built fancy homes, hotels, and a railroad link. Then he went bankrupt and so began the bankrupting of the western bays eco system.
The 1920’s brought a new visionary to greatly affect the outer beaches and inlets. His name was Robert Moses and there are those who call him a genius and master public works builder and there are those who have an unprintable opinion of him. Like all public figures he probably falls in the middle. Without him the barrier beaches from Jones Inlet eastward would have looked like Rockaway and Long Beach with buildings shore to shore. He saved Jones Beach to Fire Island Inlet from rude development but there is a “Ying and Yang” to everything and the “Yang” for the bays was a big one.
In 1929 Moses opened a glorious new “peoples” beach. It was named after Major Thomas Jones, a 17th century land owner, adventurer and sometimes alleged coastal pirate buried at Grace Episcopal Church in Massapequa. Unfortunately for some, to build Jones Beach, Moses had to do some “pirating” of his own. He forcibly removed the community of High Hill just east of where today Zack’s Bay is today. Then he removed fishermen’s shacks in the area and closed up the inlet in that vicinity. Moses replaced them with a bay beach and marina. He built beautiful bath buildings and a board walk on the ocean side and then allowed only automobile access to Jones beach over new bay bridges.
With one inlet down he pushed eastward leaving Jones Inlet open for access to the ocean and as a separation from the developed Long Beach Island. The next inlet to be closed was at Gilgo Beach and then the inlet west of Muncie Island. Bingo! Three purifying veins of fresh sea water supplying the bay were closed on his march to have one unified road to Captree. Today we call this road the “Ocean Parkway”. Several outer islands became one as he dredged the bay side to make Sloop Channel. He used that sand to close inlets and reshape the beach environment to his will.
The result was a beautiful continuous white sandy ocean beach front and a state of the art scenic road which Moses and his engineers toted as “anchoring the dunes” and thereby protecting Long Island south shore communities from Freeport to West Babylon from the ravages of severe storms.
What Moses accomplished was a public works and engineering marvel in his time but today we know better. By closing these inlets he unknowingly cut off a large part of the lungs and veins of the bay. As the years progressed the ecological changes were, at first, barely noticeable. There were still scallops in the bay in the 1950s albeit not in the quantities once harvested. As Long Island was intensely developed, streams feeding fresh water into the bay ran dry as the fresh water table dropped. This affected the salinity as the salt water that came in with each tide no longer could change over enough on a tide as there were fewer flushing inlets. Nitrogen from lawn fertilizers and street run off languished in bays, especially in the uppermost back bay areas.
For the eastern bays, water renewal has come through Fire Island Inlet. Over the years there have been breaches along Fire Island but they were closed quickly by nature or human intervention by replenishing beach sand lost in storms and dredging the Fire Island Inlet periodically to keep it open and navigable. This inlet became the only lifeblood to a sickened eastern Great South Bay. With all the closed inlets, shellfish dwindled, bay wetlands began to fade, brown tides became a yearly event and coliform levels in many places rose dramatically.
In the fall of 2012 super storm Sandy brought devastation to Long Island. The Great South Bay filled with so much water as there were not enough “release valve” inlets to release the super tide, and strong on shore winds slowed the effectiveness of the outgoing tides. The water in the bay built up incrementally with each tide cycle. Many lives and much property was impacted.
But Sandy also brought a gift. A “New Inlet” was born where a naturally closed inlet was from the mid 1700s to 1820. ( “Old Inlet”) From a small breach of 200 yards across, it is now over 800 yards. It is breathing new life into the entire system. Sea life is rebounding, the water is cleaner and in combination with the recent dredging of Fire Island Inlet and portions of Sloop Channel the waters are flowing better than they have since the 1930s. The affects have been attested from east to west over the entire system though most effectively to the east. This “New Inlet” opposite Bellport has affected the entire bay system in a positive way and the lessons it is teaching us is that the bay must breath the be healthy and its life blood is fresh ocean water.
West of the Fire Island inlet, environmentalists are looking at ways to increase the flow by having giant pipes filter water from the ocean into the bay and out following tidal patterns. This is not on the drawing board yet, however, finding some inventive alternative can help make the positive and negative accomplishments of Robert Moses more friendly to our wonderful bays.
Mark Nuccio can be reached at