Long Island Sound: A Success Story

The following is the last in a series of three articles about efforts to restore Long Island Sound as a healthy, vibrant body of water.The Results Peter Donahue probably has more daily contact with Long Island Sound then nearly anyone else in Rye. He owns the Tide Mill Yacht Basin on Kirby Lane.

Published February 23, 2012 8:33 PM
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The following is the last in a series of three articles about efforts to restore Long Island Sound as a healthy, vibrant body of water.The Results
Peter Donahue probably has more daily contact with Long Island Sound then nearly anyone else in Rye. He owns the Tide Mill Yacht Basin on Kirby Lane.

 

By Walt Mardis

 

The following is the last in a series of three articles about efforts to restore Long Island Sound as a healthy, vibrant body of water.

 

The Results

Peter Donahue probably has more daily contact with Long Island Sound then nearly anyone else in Rye. He owns the Tide Mill Yacht Basin on Kirby Lane.

 

The longtime Rye resident remembers as a young boy just how bad the Sound could be.  “You can really tell the difference now,” he says, “particularly in the clarity of the water – you can actually see past the surface. Twenty years ago that definitely was not the case.” It makes a difference for his customers, as well. “People are more likely to be swimming from their boats than before,” he continues, “and fishing certainly has improved.”

 

Mr. Donahue’s observations are generally matched by the monitoring data the EPA and state and local agencies collect on water quality, sea life numbers, and habitat restoration. Most measures show a gradual improvement in the critical indicators of environmental health, although there is still a long way to go on some and success varies among the three sub-regions of the Sound.

 

The most recent top-level analyses of water quality in Long Island Sound show that the Western Basin of the Sound (which stretches from New York City past Rye and through Bridgeport, Connecticut) is the weakest performer, with a “fair” water quality rating approximately 70% of the time (the quality is “good” 23% and “poor” 7% of the time). This is largely a reflection of the greater level of development around the western portions of the Sound, including the proximity to New York City, as well as some unique natural conditions.  The Western Basin is, for example, far shallower and narrower than the eastern portions and has less mixing from clean ocean water.

 

Nevertheless, according to EPA’s Mark Tedesco, this means that for the most part, the water is safe for swimming and other recreational activities. “Unless there has been a major rainfall and tests show a rise in bacterial levels, people should not be afraid to enjoy the Sound.”

 

The further east one goes in the Sound, the better the water quality, according to the most recent studies. The Middle Basin, which runs from Milford, Connecticut to Westbrook, has fair quality 44% of the time and good quality 55%. The Eastern Basin, which runs to the tip of Long Island, has good quality over 82% of the time.

 

Beach closings in the Western Basin have clearly decreased, reports Peter Tartaglia, Deputy Commissioner of Parks for Westchester County.  The County operates two public beaches on the Sound, including Rye Beach, and Mr. Tartaglia reminds us that in the past, both had to be closed regularly due to high bacteria counts. “That’s changed,” he says, “and closures in the past few years have been almost non-existent.”

 

The improvements in quality reflect the increasingly effective management of wastes in the area’s upgraded treatment plants, improvements to sewer lines, reductions in industrial pollutants, and, according to environmental observers, a greater appreciation by local citizens of the need to do their part. More people are being careful about how they use fertilizer, cleaning up dog waste, and disposing of harmful chemicals more safely. The LISS goal is to reduce nitrogen flows by almost 60% by 2017. So far, there has been a roughly 40% reduction from the early 1990s and Connecticut is on schedule to meet the target. New York is somewhat behind, but, according to Mr. Tedesco, should catch up as more treatment plant upgrades are completed.  

 

The benefit is seen in a reduction in the number of square miles of the Sound that suffer from hypoxia (aquatic dead zones) each summer. Last year, the smallest area in decades was affected.  Toxic industrial discharges have been reduced even more dramatically, falling from 36 million pounds in 1988 to 4 million in 2008. Regular citizens are doing their part as well – each year over 5,000 people participate in local cleanup efforts. As Alison Plati, waterfront director at Manursing Island Club, notes, however, trash dumped from pleasure boats that washes up onto the beach is still a problem.

 

The improvements have not come without a cost. Mr. Tedesco notes that the most recent upgrades to sanitary systems in New York alone total more than one billion dollars, although he points out that compared to the estimated eight billion dollars or more in annual economic benefits that a clean, healthy Sound generates, the spending has been well worth it. The costs and the complex challenges of upgrading treatment have, not surprisingly, met resistance from some local communities along the Sound. In fact, Westchester County recently had to enter into a consent agreement with the State Department of Environmental Conservation requiring the County to improve waste treatment facilities in several local towns, including Mamaroneck and Port Chester, by 2017.    

 

The improvements in water quality are also slowly being translated into a healthier aquatic environment as well. Recently, restrictions on the amount of selected fish and seafood that the government recommends individuals can safely eat have been reduced (though not eliminated). In addition, commercial shell fishing has shown a slight resurgence, with, for example, almost 600 thousand bushels of clams harvested from the Sound in the most recent year with complete data.

Rye has its own success stories as well. The Marshlands, the largest saltwater marsh in Westchester County, continues to show improvement in water quality. Peter Tartaglia, Deputy Commissioner of Westchester County Parks, says that a key indicator of marsh health — the amount of spartina (a desirable aquatic grass — has significantly increased in the past few years. The citizens group, Friends of the Marshlands, is just one example of concerned individuals who are actively involved in trying to improve the sound and its adjacent shoreline.

 

Additional major projects to enhance the environment along the Rye shoreline have been undertaken with the support of other public-spirited organizations.  The $1.5 million acquisition of the Bird Homestead on Milton Harbor, one of the last remaining 19th-century farms in the area, will protect the land and maintain it as a valuable buffer against runoff; the project was spearheaded by the Committee to Save the Bird Homestead.  Similarly, Manursing Lake was named as a Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat by New York State and will be part of a $5 million initiative to restore habitat and reduce hypoxia.  Interestingly, however, Rye’s Conservation Commission refused requests to discuss the progress being made on cleaning up the Sound.  

 

So do the improvements really matter?  If you ask Chris and Bunny Clark, longtime Rye residents, the answer is unequivocal. “We love to swim in the Sound,” says Chris, “and have for years. But in the mid-1990s, we basically stopped. The water was dirty and we often found syringes and other waste floating by.  Now we know it’s 100% better and the worry is gone.”  Bunny agrees.  “One of the joys of living in Rye is Long Island Sound and being able to go for a swim, and it’s especially great in the early fall when the Sound is still fairly warm and amazingly clear.”

 

Work still needs to be done, however, and very serious threats to the long-term health of Long Island Sound remain. A good example is the Connecticut River, which is the largest river emptying into the Sound.  The river, whose source is in southern Canada, picks up the wastewater from dozens of communities, the run-off from thousands of farms and residential lawns, and the sediment from multiple development projects before emptying in the Sound. “Cleaning up the rivers in Connecticut that empty into the Sound is what will make the biggest improvement,” agrees Peter Donahue.”

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