T. Goreau comments on Bahamas golf course impacts to Town Board of Southampton, NY

February 22 2016

To: Jay Schneiderman, Southampton Town Supervisor and the Town Board
From: Dr. Thomas J. Goreau, President, GCRA
Re: Discovery Land golf course environmental impacts

Dear Mr. Schneiderman and the Southampton Town Board, Nelson, Pope, & Voorhis, LLC, in their submission to the Southampton Town Board (paid for by the Discovery Land Company LLC), listed me as an expert “key contact” on the environmental impacts of the DLC golf course developments on Guana Cay, Bahamas, and on its relevance to their proposed project at East Quogue in Southampton.

Although they used my name without my knowledge or consent, I have studied the DLC Bahamas site for 10 years, and would like to comment on their report.

In the early 1970s I helped create the Benthic Ecology Laboratory at Yale University to study long term changes to bottom-dwelling biodiversity in Long Island Sound, and our team’s work found that the entire area had been severely degraded since it had first been studied in the early 1950s. While my own personal work on restoration of degraded Long Island marine ecosystems (oyster reef and salt marshes) has been limited to the opposite end of the island, in Queens, my father founded the SUNY at Stony Brook Marine Science Program, and I have long been familiar with the work of researchers there, in particular that of the late Professor Larry Slobodkin on scientifically-sound community management of coastal resources in eastern Long Island.

Besides the work of Stony Brook researchers in Long Island, there is a vast scientific literature on estuarine coastal ecosystems in ecosystems very similar to the eastern Long Island, done for many decades at Narragansett Bay (RI), and Cape Cod (MA). This research clearly shows that these ecosystems are primarily threatened by excessive land based sources of nutrient pollution. Excessive nutrient inputs from fertilizers and sewage cause harmful algal blooms that overwhelm and kill sea grasses and shellfish beds, and damage coastal fisheries. The primary need in coastal estuary management is to greatly reduce nutrient inputs, not to increase them, as a golf course inevitably would.

With regard to Bakers Bay, the coral reefs near where the golf courses were built were assessed independently at different times prior to the start of construction by three different coral reef researchers with decades of worldwide experience, Dr. Michael Risk, Dr. James Cervino, and myself. All three of us found that the coral reefs were in exceptionally good condition compared to other sites in the region, and specifically none of us were able to find evidence of coral diseases or harmful algae blooms. The algae that were found on the reef before construction were all species typical of low nutrient concentrations, and were not indicative of pollution. Based on their own personal experience, all three experts independently predicted that if the golf course, marina, hotel, and villas were built, nutrient input to the reef would become excessive, causing coral diseases, harmful algae blooms, and loss of live coral.

It should be noted that the baseline scientific assessment done by the University of Miami ended before construction began, and was not continued as DLC had promised, nor have the data from DLC’s own paid consultant’s monitoring ever been released to the public, as promised. Furthermore these water quality studies did not include the nutrients that specifically cause harmful algae growth, only simple measurements like temperature and salinity that have little relevance.

Soon after the land had been bulldozed clear of vegetation, the mega-yacht marina dredged out of the mangrove forests, the sediment and soil washed around and under the silt curtains into the sea grass and reefs had settled, and the golf course seeded and fertilized, local divers began to report unprecedented appearance of coral diseases and harmful algae blooms on the reef.

Dr. James Cervino and I confirmed their observations and have followed the changes since then. Coral diseases, which had been absent before the DLC development, began to spread and kill corals in the summer, but stopped in the winter season, only to resume the following year when the water warmed up. The mortality has progressively killed about a quarter of the corals over this period, particularly the large coral heads that build the reef framework, and shows no sign of disappearing. Blooms of algae indicative of high levels of nutrients (what we call “end of the sewage pipe indicators” because that is where they are most commonly found) began to appear on the reef and overgrow, smother, and kill corals. We have hundreds of photographs documenting this sad degradation. Coral diseases and harmful algae blooms were not found in coral reefs far away from the development, either up-current or down-current, the effects appear to be worst nearest the DLC development, so there is no other obvious cause.

Harmful algae blooms are well known to marine biologists to be caused by excessive land-based sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, the two elements that limit algae growth in the ocean due to their scarcity. DLC claims that the algae were naturally caused by hurricanes is the opposite of the truth, hurricanes remove the excessive algae due to the heavy force of breaking waves, and it takes some time for them to grow back unless the site is heavily enriched with nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, fertilizer, or agricultural wastes (the last is not present at Bakers Bay).

To determine whether nutrients specifically coming from the DLC development were the cause of these changes, or if they were due to nutrients transported from populated areas further away, we have made four years of measurements of the nitrogen and phosphorus contents of algae at sites all around the island, and measured the ratio of nitrogen isotopes in the algae, which are diagnostic of different kinds of nitrogen sources. We found that algae nearest to the DLC golf course / marina / villas / hotel development have consistently the highest levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and distinctively different nitrogen isotope ratios that are typical of the type of fertilizer being used by Bakers Bay, while algae found on other parts of the island have ratios that are typical of natural nitrogen sources (from decomposition of vegetation on land) and not of sewage pollution. It is therefore clear that the source of the nutrients causing the problem comes from the DLC site, and is not transported from other places as DLC and NPV claim.

Our data have been presented at the Abaco Science Conference and at the Bahamas Natural History Conference, and the data will be published in the scientific literature as the first clear proof ever obtained of the negative impacts of golf course developments on coral reefs. It is astonishing that this is the first such direct evidence, because every competent coral reef researcher would say that building a golf course next to a reef would inevitably cause algae problems, but to our surprise we found that we were the first ever to directly document these effects, only because they had never actually been looked for before!

Our study was done pro-bono because DLC’s paid consultants failed to evaluate the coral reef health or assess the impacts of nutrient inputs. In fact, out of the hundreds of golf courses built directly overlooking coral reefs, not one ever had a scientifically-sound environmental impact assessment that evaluated nutrient impacts, and none ever assessed coral reef health BEFORE development, and then re-assessed it again afterwards to compare the differences, with the sole exception of our work at Bakers Bay. None of the hundreds of environmental impact assessments done by hired consultants for golf course developers ever measured or evaluated the impacts of nutrients, the key factor known to cause algae blooms, on local marine ecosystems. They simply asserted that no harm could possibly result, without any direct studies. I made extensive searches of the literature for such data and was unable to find any.

DLC has built at least two other huge golf courses at locations where their fertilizer runoff drains directly onto coral reefs, the Makena Golf Course Resort on Maui, and the Kuki’o Golf Course Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. In both cases these areas had some of the best coral reefs left on those islands. Coral reefs at both sites are now severely degraded, overgrown with weedy algae as the result of land-based nutrient inputs. No serious study of the nutrient impacts on the algae or the coral reef was done in either case, but they are likely worse than Bakers Bay because these are high wet islands with much greater groundwater and surface water runoff into the sea (Guana Cay is a dry and low island so there are no rivers and only a shallow groundwater layer).

I am therefore confident that our findings at DLC’s Bakers Bay Golf Course Resort on Guana Cay, that algae blooms and coral disease had not been present before construction, and began to have a severe impact right afterwards, could have been found at any one of these hundreds of other golf courses had people ever bothered to look for them. That our study was the first to find what was obvious is an appalling indictment of the fact that EIA’s paid for by developers systematically tell the client what they want to hear and avoid scientifically sound assessment of local ecosystems.

While the character of the marine ecosystems at East Quogue, and their sensitivity to nutrients, are different than at Bakers Bay, our study has clearly relevant lessons for Southampton. It is impossible to heavily fertilize a golf course near the coast without nutrients building up in the groundwater and flowing into the ocean, even with the efforts that DLC made at Bakers Bay to slope many of the greens inland and to place liners under the turf. Claims that this can be done at East Quogue, or that they can actually “clean up the groundwater”, appear to be PR hype, not scientifically sound. Instead these new nutrient sources can be expected to fuel weedy algae growth that will further damage seagrass and shellfish in Southampton waters.

In summary, the scientific claims made in the NPV report are entirely false. The rest of the report appears to have been plagiarized word for word from previous DLC public relations material, and also seems to have little relationship to reality. They do not augur well for the protection of Southampton’s sensitive marine ecosystems if the East Quogue development is permitted.

Sincerely yours,
Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
President, Global Coral Reef Alliance