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State of the Long Island Sound

Broadwater may be dead in the, um, water, but there are a number of other issues when it comes to protecting the sound. we pick the top four concerns and offer a report card on how serious the problem is, what’s being done about it — and why goose poop should concern us all.

Brian Hubble

The mid-morning sun and a gentle breeze rippling over the Saugatuck River have joined hands this fine day, knitting the water into a tapestry of light. Waves slosh against the side of Dick Harris’s fourteen-foot scow as it plows toward the mouth of Long Island Sound. His mission: to collect water samples from various places that will show how much pollution — most notably inadequately treated sewage — is entering the water.

Harris is director of the Nature Discovery Center of Westport, also known as Earthplace. He compares his work to that of a doctor looking for fatty deposits on a patient’s arterial walls. Even small amounts of harmful effluents entering the Saugatuck can add up to big troubles for the Sound. And maintaining the health of Long Island Sound, Harris insists, is vital to the region for many reasons.

•An estuary where saltwater and freshwater mix, the Sound is home to more than 300 plant and animal species — everything from microscopic phytoplankton and bluefish to sea otters and egrets.

•It’s a watery playground for the eight million boaters, bathers and fishing enthusiasts who live along its 110-mile length.

•It’s also a major part of the regional economy, generating $5 billion in annual revenue from various commercial and recreational ventures.

For Dick Harris, however, the Sound is much more than that: It is a classroom for the kids who visit his museum, a doorway into nature’s mysteries and a national treasure that demands our protection. Among the most outspoken of the Sound’s defenders, Harris is doing his bit to help out in a major federal- and state-sponsored cleanup of the waterway scheduled for completion by 2014. But with six years still to go, he wonders whether “too little is being done too late” to keep the Sound healthy. The Environmental Protection Agency seems to share his concern.

According to a 2006 report by the Long Island Sound Study Project — the EPA’s latest report card on the much-used waterway — the overall condition of the Sound is “poor.” The agency found the most serious problems in the densely populated Western Basin, which extends south from Bridgeport along Connecticut’s Gold Coast to Manhattan’s East River. In compiling the project’s findings, biologists and marine scientists looked at dozens of complicated and overlapping factors in four key areas:
1. Water quality
2. Commercial, industrial and
recreational policy
3. Land management
4. Wildlife regulation

While most agree that over the last decade conditions in the Sound have improved, environmentalists say this is a critical time. The key to preserving its vitality can be summed up in one word: education. SoundWaters, a nonprofit organization based in Stamford, was founded in 1989 and offers a variety of programs to teach people how to make little changes in their lives that will restore, protect and preserve the Sound’s fragile ecosystem.

Although everyone is welcome to visit SoundWaters’ Coastal Education Center at Cove Island Park, “we target much of our efforts at teaching young people,” says Executive Director Leigh Schemitz. For more than ten years, SoundWaters has worked with local schools to educate kids about the Sound and its importance to the region — even offering tours aboard its eighty-foot, three-masted schooner. “We like to think we have something for everyone,” says Leigh.

“People sometimes take the Sound for granted because we’re living busy lives and we don’t take time to stop and smell the roses,” says John Hannon, director of development for the National Audubon Society’s branch office in Greenwich. The society, which focuses on protecting the more than 300 avian species that reside in and around the Sound, sponsors regular tours of important bird areas. They also provide expert advice on coastal management plans.

“We try to expand appreciation for the world outside your window,” says Hannon. “So that when you do slow down, you begin to realize how really precious and special the Sound is.”

And how are we doing? “If I were to grade our cleanup efforts so far, I’d say we deserve maybe a B-minus,” says Harris. “But in every one of those areas we’re looking at, there’s room for improvement. In some areas, a lot of improvement.”

Following our own sources, we looked at the EPA’s key areas and came up with a grade of our own as to the overall health of the Sound.

Water quality varies greatly in the Sound. From New Haven north to the Rhode Island border, where the water is deepest and the distance between Connecticut and Long Island greatest, scientists say it’s generally good. The Western Basin, however, is clearly the most “distressed” region, according to Mark Tedesko, director of the EPA’s Long Island Sound Study, based in Stamford. There, water quality is considered fair at best.

Tedesko and others are especially concerned about diminishing levels of oxygen in the water, a condition called hypoxia. It’s caused largely by inadequately treated sewage being pumped into the water. In addition to introducing potentially harmful E. coli bacteria into the Sound, sewage raises nitrogen levels, driving down the dissolved oxygen in the water fish and other marine organisms need to survive. Environmentalists cite oxygen depletion as a contributing factor in the massive fish and lobster “die-offs” that have occasionally plagued the Sound over the years. Hypoxia is also blamed, in part, for decreasing populations of certain cold-water fish, notably winter flounder. By collecting water samples, Harris hopes to identify and map “hot pipes” — sewer inlets, storm drains and other places where potentially dangerous effluents like nitrogen, and to a lesser extent phosphorous, are entering the ecosystem. Earthplace recently received a $47,000 EPA grant to complete the study.

Connecticut and New York began collaborating with the federal agency in 1998 to reduce nitrogen levels by nearly sixty percent over fifteen years, principally by modernizing outdated sewage-treatment plants. That effort is already paying off. The city of Stamford has done its part, completing a $105 million upgrade of its sewage-treatment plant in 2006.

“This removes nearly all of the four thousand pounds of nitrogen that enter the system daily,” says Tedesko. “We’re definitely on pace to achieve the goal we set for ourselves.” Even so, the EPA say there’s plenty of room for improvement. “Yes, we have made progress,” asserts Tedesko. “But if you look at the big picture, the Sound clearly remains a system in distress.”          

Unquestionably, Broadwater was the major blip on the environmentalists’ radar since it was first proposed in 2003, a project many dubbed the ultimate symbol of callous disregard for the environment. And as symbols go, it was a hard one to miss.

“We’re talking about something that would have been more than four football fields long and rise twenty-eight stories above the waterline,” says Leah Schmaltz, director of legal affairs for Save the Sound, in Greenwich and New Haven.

So it was a significant victory when New York Governor David Patterson killed Broadwater in April. Among those celebrating the decision was Terry Backer.

A fixture on the Connecticut environmental scene for more than two decades, Backer is president of Long Island Soundkeeper. He’s also a Democrat from Norwalk in the state House of Representatives.

“Once you realize that everything in nature fits together as part of a whole, you recognize the absolute necessity of decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and developing alternate forms of renewable energy,” Backer says. “I find that more and more of my time in the legislature is spent arguing on behalf of making Connecticut a leader in those technologies.”

The phenome-nal population growth of Connecticut cities and towns that began in the late 1900s and continued unabated into the twenty-first century has taken an immense toll on the health of Long Island Sound, critics say. Sadly, notes longtime environmental advocate Tom Anderson, the situation is nothing new. A New Canaan resident and former environmental journalist, Anderson has been writing about Long Island Sound for the better part of twenty years. His popular blog, thissphere.blogspot.com, attracts about 300 visitors a day.

“Long Island Sound has always lacked the identity and the constituency that the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River have with people who live in those areas,” says Anderson. “The attitude toward the Sound for the past four hundred years has been: ‘This place exists for us to exploit and that’s what we’re going to do.’ All too often, that exploitation has occurred without regard for the consequences.”

During the population booms of the 1950s and ’60s, some area communities pumped raw sewage into the water. Years of such abuse have taken their toll. Toxicity levels in sediment collected from the bottom of the Sound remain well above normal in the Western Basin and elsewhere, so much so that the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection continue to issue advisories against eating too much fish caught in those areas.        

As development encroaches ever closer to the Sound and the surrounding watershed areas, the potential for pollution increases, according to Anderson and others. Oil, grease, gasoline, fertilizer and all manner of chemicals enter via runoff from storm drains. Fertilizer is of particular concern because it causes nitrogen to build up, creating the potential for hypoxia.

For decades now, the Sound has been under siege by an army of invading organisms from far-off lands. Freighters from all around the world have introduced a staggering array of invasive species into the Sound. They either cling to the vessel’s hull or are deposited here when the ships pump out their ballast tanks.

Take, for example, the Asian Stalked Tunicate, which in the thirty years since it arrived from Japan has pushed out the native blue mussel. This little brown shellfish consumes seaweed and erodes boat hulls, docks and piers. Other so-called exotics include the Lion Fish, Kelp Bryozoan and Mute Swan — the now ubiquitous bird with an insatiable appetite for eelgrass. (Some environmental scientists fear disappearing eelgrass in parts of the Sound, much of it caused by over-development, is a warning of more eco-trouble ahead.)

The average person today doesn’t think about how a lot of people doing a lot of ordinary things can add up to tremendous damage to the environment, Harris says. “You work on your car and flush the residue of grease and oil down a storm drain and it winds up in the Sound. You fertilize your yard, which adds nitrogen to the ground that gets into the water supply, which in time winds up in the Sound. You feed the geese in a local park and eventually all those geese leave droppings on the ground, droppings that make nitrogen that ends up in the Sound. People need to stop and think about what they’re doing. I’m telling you, goose poop is a huge problem.”