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Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5259

Prepared in cooperation with the National Park Service

Analysis of the Shallow Groundwater Flow System at Fire Island National Seashore, Suffolk County, New York

By Christopher E. Schubert


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Fire Island National Seashore (FIIS) occupies 42 kilometers of the barrier island for which it is named that lies off the southern shore of Suffolk County, N.Y. Freshwater in the highly permeable, sandy aquifer underlying Fire Island is bounded laterally by marine surface waters and at depth by saline groundwater. Interspersed throughout FIIS are 17 pre-existing residential communities that in summer months greatly increase in population through the arrival of summer residents and vacationers; in addition, the National Park Service (NPS) has established several facilities on the island to accommodate visitors to FIIS. The 2.2 million people estimated by the NPS to visit Fire Island annually impact groundwater quality through the release of waste-derived contaminants, such as nutrients, pathogens, and organic compounds, into the environment. Waste-contaminated groundwater can move through the aquifer and threaten the ecological health of the adjacent back-barrier estuaries to which much of the groundwater ultimately discharges. In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the NPS, began a 3-year investigation to (1) collect groundwater levels and water-quality (nutrient) samples, (2) develop a three-dimensional model of the shallow (water-table) aquifer system and adjacent marine surface waters, and (3) calculate nitrogen loads in simulated groundwater discharges from the aquifer to back-barrier estuaries and the ocean.

The hydrogeology of the shallow aquifer system was characterized from the results of exploratory drilling, geophysical surveying, water-level monitoring, and water-quality sampling. The investigation focused on four areas—the communities of Kismet and Robbins Rest, the NPS Visitor Center at Watch Hill, and the undeveloped Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. Thirty-five observation wells were installed within FIIS to characterize subsurface hydrogeology and establish a water-table monitoring network in the four study areas. A variable-density model of the shallow aquifer system and adjacent marine surface waters was developed to simulate groundwater flow patterns and rates. Nitrogen loads from the shallow aquifer system were calculated from representative total nitrogen (TN) concentrations and simulated groundwater discharges to back-barrier estuaries and the ocean.

The model simulates groundwater directions, velocities, and discharge rates under 2005 mean annual conditions. Groundwater budgets were developed for recharge areas of similar land use that contribute freshwater to back-barrier estuaries, the ocean, and subsea-discharge zones. Total freshwater discharge from the shallow aquifer system is about 43,500 cubic meters per day (m3/d) (79.8 percent) to back-barrier estuaries and about 10,200 m3/d (18.7 percent) to the ocean; about 836 m3/d (1.5 percent) may exit the system as subsea underflow. The total contribution of fresh groundwater to shoreline discharge zones amounts to about 53,700 m3/d (98.5 percent). The median age of freshwater discharged to back-barrier estuaries and the ocean was 3.4 years, and the 95th-percentile age was 20 years.

The TN concentrations and loads under 2005 mean annual conditions for areas that contribute fresh groundwater to back-barrier estuaries and the ocean were calculated for the principal land uses on Fire Island. The overall TN load from the shallow aquifer system to shoreline discharge zones is about 16,200 kilograms per year (kg/yr) (82.2 percent) to back-barrier estuaries and about 3,500 kg/yr (17.8 percent) to the ocean. The overall TN load to marine surface waters amounts to about 19,700 kg/yr—roughly 6 percent of the annual TN load from shallow groundwater entering the South Shore Estuary Reserve (SSER) from the Suffolk County mainland, which is about 345,000 kg/yr. In contrast to the TN load from shallow groundwater for the SSER watershed, which annually yields about 353 kilograms per square kilometer (kg/km2), the overall TN load from Fire Island produces nitrogen at an annual rate of about 890 kg/km2—more than double the SSER loading rate from shallow groundwater.

Although high-density residential land use occupies about 8 percent of Fire Island, unsewered areas contribute about 46 percent of the overall TN load from groundwater to back-barrier estuaries. Because of the effects of wave setup and tidal pumping along the ocean shore, groundwater-protection strategies need to consider most of the island as a potential source area to the wetland and adjacent estuarine habitats within the boundaries of FIIS. TN concentrations in the park downgradient from at least two communities—Kismet and Robbins Rest—and from the Watch Hill leach field exceeded the natural levels observed in other undeveloped areas of FIIS by a factor of 10 or more; the presence of excess nitrogen may have important consequences for species adapted to the low nutrient levels naturally occurring in aquatic and coastal habitats of FIIS. These elevated values also indicate that recharge containing fertilizers or human waste has infiltrated the water table in upgradient areas; this water may also contain pathogens and other harmful compounds.

First posted April 12, 2010

For additional information contact:
U.S. Geological Survey
New York Water Science Center
425 Jordan Road
Troy, NY 12180

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Suggested citation:

Schubert, C.E., 2010, Analysis of the shallow groundwater flow system at Fire Island National Seashore, Suffolk County, New York: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5259, 106 p. (Also available at




Purpose and Scope

Methods and Approach

Fire Island Study Area

Population and Land Use

Water Use

Hydrogeologic Framework

Geologic Setting

Monmouth Group

Pleistocene Deposits

Gardiners Clay

Wisconsinan Deposits

Lower Outwash

“20-Foot” Clay

Upper Outwash

Holocene Deposits

Lagoonal Deposits

Estuarine Mud

Seagrass Beds

Peat Deposits

Barrier Island and Shelf Sands

Hydrologic Setting

Hydrologic Boundaries

Precipitation and Recharge

Groundwater Discharge

Local Mean Sea Level

Wave Setup and Setdown

Tidal Pumping

Freshwater-Saltwater Interface

Directions of Groundwater Flow

Nitrogen Concentrations

Analysis of the Shallow Groundwater Flow System at Fire Island National Seashore

Development of Flow Model

Model Grid

Boundary Conditions

Model Calibration

Simulation of Steady-State Conditions

Groundwater Flow

Discharge-Boundary Analysis

Contributing-Area Analysis

Nutrient Loads

Limitations of Analysis

Groundwater-Resource Concerns

Use of Long-Term Monitoring to Assess Water Resources

Groundwater Levels

Water-Quality Samples



References Cited



Appendix 1. Groundwater Levels Collected at Fire Island National Seashore, October 2005 through October 2006

Appendix 2. Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrite Plus Nitrate) and Phosphorus (Orthophosphate) Concentrations in Groundwater Collected at Fire Island National Seashore, October 2005 through September 2006

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