Sayville’s Brown’s River is a busy commercial and recreational waterway. Sayville Ferry Service, which provides service to four communities on Fire Island as well as numerous other businesses, operates out of it, including issuing boat slips managed by the Town of Islip.
Countless business owners, government officials and boat owners agreed that the essential waterway is in desperate need of dredging. According to the National Ocean Service website, dredging is “the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors and other water bodies. A routine necessity because sedimentation gradually fills channels and harbors.”
Brown’s River is a federal waterway that spans 1 mile long. It was last dredged in 2004-2005. According to New York State Sen. Alexis Weik, a waterway is typically dredged every eight to 10 years.
“The main issue when dredging the river bottom are the spoils,” Weik said at the press conference. “They need to be deposited onto land. There is a large spoil site owned mostly by Suffolk County and partially by the Town of Islip located just east of the river in Bayport. Unfortunately, it has to be cleared or another viable spoil site is needed in order to house the dredge materials. It’s not good if we dredge if you have no place to put the spoils.”
The week prior, Weik hosted a meeting with all interested parties, including representatives from congressman Andrew Garborino’s office, the county legislature, the Town of Islip, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Conservation. All parties agreed that the river must be dredged as soon as possible.
“On behalf of the town board and the supervisor, I want to assure you that we are committed to getting this project done,” said Town of Islip councilwoman Mary Kate Mullen. “We’ve been working on it and as the senator mentioned, the issue is with the spoils. We’re very close to the finish line. We understand and know how important this is to the community of Sayville and the whole town of Islip.”
Weik noted that for an emergency dredge, they need to identify the areas that should be dredged, determine how many cubic yards of waste soil there will be, as well as have the soil sampled. Once the amount of cubic yards of soil is known, they must identify where the spoils can be deposited or make accommodations for them to be deposited elsewhere. If expedited, Weik said, this process could take a few weeks.
“As far as an emergency dredge, Suffolk County would bear the biggest part of that responsibility,” Weik said. “The Town of Islip would also have a responsibility in that as well.”
Weik said they are securing funds from Congress to make sure the Army Corps of Engineers has funds to do their soil-sample testing. A permit for a full normal dredge is approximately $250,000. Weik estimates the cost will be in the “ballpark range” of $2 million.
Commercial and economic impact
Ken Stein, president of Sayville Ferry Service, spoke on the importance of their service to the communities on Fire Island and how the lack of dredging has affected them.
“Every captain here at Sayville Ferry will tell you that they’ve experienced the bottom of Brown’s River regularly,” Stein said, “whether hitting it or getting slowed down trying to drag themselves through the mud.”
“Unfortunately, this situation will not solve itself. Please understand, the time is coming—in the next year or two where we may have to cancel trips during low tides or around low tides. This might become too common. As a lifeline to these beautiful Fire Island communities, I would be greatly saddened not being able to deliver the ferry service [that] homeowners, visitors, daytrippers, business owners, and workers have come to expect and need.”
Stein also spoke about how the low tide is affecting the ferries from a maintenance aspect.
“Just this year, we have bent and repaired 19 ferry props [propellers]... this simply cannot continue,” Stein said.
The tides are so low in Brown’s River that two ferries cannot pass side by side. They must wait for each other outside the jetties and keep in constant communication about where they are.
“We’ve come up with a choreographed act of radio traffic [and] phone communication that only allows for one vessel to pass at a time,” added Tommy Esposito of Tony’s Barge.”
“If you have an outsider who’s not aware of our choreographed pinpoint radio and telephone communication, it’s only a matter of time before somebody tries to do something and they’re going to get hurt. And it’s totally avoidable.”
Because the communities on Fire Island are so isolated, when there is an emergency such as a fire or hurricane, help comes via the ferry service. Don Corkery of the Sayville Fire Department put it quite plainly.
“If you’re going to have a fire rescue emergency in this area, you have to have it in high tide,” Corkery said. “It’s that simple. Our fire boat is stuck in the mud at low tide. We simply cannot guarantee that we will get out.”
The leaders of the various communities on Fire Island spoke on the necessity of the ferry service to be able to operate, regardless of the tide. Diane Romano, of the Cherry Grove Property Owners Association as well as the Cherry Grove Fire Department, said that during a fire emergency the ferries can come to the aid of the community in 20 minutes with 100 firefighters and all of their equipment.
“If Sayville Ferry can’t get them there because they can’t go on this river, we will have a disaster in our community,” Romano added of the dangers of not dredging immediately.
In addition to the commercial and emergency services needed to dredge Brown’s River, there is also an environmental impact. Robyn Silvestri of Save the Great South Bay noted that dredging will help Brown’s River flow more freely and improve the water quality of the bay.
“Without it flowing properly, it affects the quality of the water that’s in the Great South Bay,” Silvestri said. “Sayville suffers from one of the highest levels of nitrogen pollution in the area.”
Weik created a petition available on her website to support dredging Brown’s River.