Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Who Is Killing Long Island Sound? (from The New York Times)

Published: September 3, 2006

Pound Ridge, N.Y. -- Eight years ago, Connecticut, New York and federal officials vowed to work together to prevent Long Island Sound from turning into a vast dead zone incapable of supporting striped bass, flounder, porgies, scup and other fish.

They agreed that they would reduce the pollutants — particularly nitrogen in treated sewage — that cause oxygen levels to plummet in the western half of the Sound. (Healthy concentrations of oxygen are essential to a marine ecosystem and the creatures that live in it.) The goal was a 58.5 percent reduction, and Connecticut moved so aggressively on a well-financed plan to improve sewage plants that within a few years it was almost halfway toward its goal.

The result was that the Sound enjoyed a period of small but measurable water quality improvements.

In each of the last five summers, however, water quality in the Sound has been about as bad as it’s ever been. Oxygen levels have fallen close to zero in more than 300 square miles, from roughly Bridgeport, Conn., and Long Island’s Huntington Bay to City Island in the Bronx.

Yet just when efforts to save the Sound should be increasing, the Connecticut Legislature is doing the opposite. It is backing off its cleanup commitment by slashing money for sewage plant improvements. This is particularly distressing not just because of the ecological implications but because Connecticut had been the leader in the cleanup, surpassing both New York State and New York City.

After the 1998 cleanup agreement (and for several years before in anticipation of it), the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection worked with local communities, which own sewage plants in Connecticut that empty into the Sound, to plan for nitrogen reduction, and then helped to finance the sewage plant improvements. Connecticut’s mechanism was the Clean Water Fund, through which it provided grants for up to 30 percent of the nitrogen removal costs and 2 percent loans to cover the rest.

From 1987 through 2002, Connecticut put an average of $47.9 million a year into the Clean Water Fund. But that changed starting in 2003, when the Connecticut Legislature began taking money out of the fund, including $18 million in 2003 and $60 million in 2004, and using it for other projects, like road building and transportation initiatives. The Department of Environmental Protection had little choice but to scale back its nitrogen reduction program drastically.

By how much? In 2005, Connecticut treatment plants discharged 4,947 tons of nitrogen. For 2006, the Connecticut D.E.P. had planned to require a further 17 percent reduction, to 4,110 tons, thereby getting that much closer to the 58.5 percent goal.

Instead, the Connecticut D.E.P. cut back on grants and loans — and on the size of the nitrogen reduction it will require. Rather than 17 percent, or 750 tons, it settled on a reduction of 1.1 percent, or just 55 tons for 2006.

New York, on the other hand, has become the tortoise that might reach the nitrogen reduction goal of 58.5 percent first. Taken together, the treatment plants in New York that discharge into New York’s part of the Sound have achieved a 19 percent cut in nitrogen discharges. And New York City, which has four big treatment plants that empty into the western end of the Sound, agreed earlier this year to follow a nitrogen reduction schedule mandated by state officials. In return, the city will get an extra three years, until 2017, to reach its 58.5 percent goal.

But with Connecticut’s share of the Sound cleanup stalled, far too much nitrogen will continue to enter the water, where it will encourage the growth of the algae that make up most of the Sound’s plankton. The algae will then die and decompose, consuming oxygen in the process.

It’s worth recalling what low oxygen levels can mean. In 1987, virtually every harbor from New York City’s Eastchester Bay in the west to Bridgeport, Conn., and Huntington farther east saw vast fish kills from late July through late August. Two years later there were fewer fish kills, but the near zero levels of oxygen had spread almost to New Haven.

Those dire conditions led to the cleanup plan. And for a few years, oxygen levels improved. But in 2002, perhaps because of unusually warm and rainy weather, the area with the lowest oxygen levels began to grow, spreading across the waters of Westchester, Nassau and Fairfield Counties. And by last summer, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection found oxygen readings as low as 0.5 milligrams per liter off Greenwich, Conn. (In an estuary where 8 milligrams per liter is ideal, and 3.5 is the minimum for acceptable water quality, 0.5 signals an ecosystem in crisis.) But the conditions drew little attention — so little, in fact, that the Connecticut General Assembly was able to continue ignoring the Clean Water Fund with impunity.

Several environmental groups in Connecticut tried to persuade legislators to restore money for the program. But in the end they were rejected.

This is a shame. Long Island Sound is both an irreplaceable ecological resource and an important economic resource. According to a study by a University of Connecticut economist, the Sound contributes $5.5 billion a year to New York’s and Connecticut’s economies.

For the ecological and economic values to be protected, Connecticut’s sewage treatment plants need to be upgraded. And the only way to do that is for the Connecticut General Assembly to return to session and come to an agreement with the governor to restore the Clean Water Fund.

Tom Andersen is the author of “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound.”


Deirdre said...

Dear Tom,

I am a writer and Chairman of the Weston CT Sustainability Committee. We are looking for speakers to come to educate us on important matters pertaining to environmental issues. It looks like you are local. Would you be interested in coming to speak about your book? Deirdre Doran

Tom Andersen said...


Write to me at tandersen54@optonline.net. Happy to discuss it with you.

Tom Andersen