Long Island Sound: Making a Commitment

In the early 1970s, the nation finally awoke to the damage that decades of pollution and neglect had caused to the environment. In quick succession, Federal laws were passed to improve air and water quality, restrict hazardous wastes, and curtail other activities detrimental to the environment. With these laws came new initiatives to clean up…

Published February 9, 2012 8:00 PM
3 min read

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In the early 1970s, the nation finally awoke to the damage that decades of pollution and neglect had caused to the environment. In quick succession, Federal laws were passed to improve air and water quality, restrict hazardous wastes, and curtail other activities detrimental to the environment. With these laws came new initiatives to clean up the water, including massive amounts of spending on sewage treatment plants.

 

By Walt Mardis

 

The following is the second in a three-part series about Long Island Sound and efforts to restore it as a healthy, vibrant body of water.

 

In the early 1970s, the nation finally awoke to the damage that decades of pollution and neglect had caused to the environment. In quick succession, Federal laws were passed to improve air and water quality, restrict hazardous wastes, and curtail other activities detrimental to the environment. With these laws came new initiatives to clean up the water, including massive amounts of spending on sewage treatment plants.

 

Long Island Sound clearly benefited from these efforts. As municipal and industrial waste began to be treated for pathogens and various toxic pollutants, water quality began to slowly improve. By the early 1990s, progress was made in reducing the amount of untreated waste that entered the Sound. Nevertheless, multiple problems persisted. On a high percentage of days, swimming was prohibited at many beaches. There were dead-zones in the Sound where nothing could live, and the shorelines continued to degrade.

 

The most immediate problem in the nineties was nitrogen. As Peter Tartaglia, Deputy Commissioner of Parks for Westchester County, explains: too much nitrogen in water leads to excessive plant growth – specifically algae and the infamous algae blooms – a condition called hypoxia. As algae proliferate, they suck up all of the oxygen in the water, killing fish and other plants and creating environmental dead zones.  

 

Nitrogen in the Sound comes from multiple sources. About one-half comes from domestic wastewater, which isn’t adequately cleansed at treatment plants. The rest results from run-off from agriculture and suburban yards (all of that fertilizer we use depends on nitrogen); auto exhausts, a portion of which ultimately may be washed into the Sound; and even power plants, which emit nitrogen that eventually falls to the ground or into the water.
Untreated polluted household wastewater was a second problem. Combined sewers, that carry both wastewater and stormwater, sometimes leak untreated sewage into the Sound. Further, in heavy rainstorms, they become overloaded and the polluted water bypasses the wastewater treatment plants and goes directly into the Sound. Beach closings often follow heavy storms because the overflow from combined sewers produces a sudden increase in bacteria and other pollutants.

 

Habitat loss was a third major problem. Although Federal and State laws restrict the amount of wetlands that can be filled in, the problem around Rye is that too much of the original wetlands had already been destroyed in earlier years. If the Sound is to be restored to a healthy state, some way of reversing this loss has to be found.

 

In 1994, New York and Connecticut, with support from the Federal government, agreed to a multi-year plan to address problems such as nitrogen, untreated wastewater, habitat loss, and others damaging the ecology of Long Island Sound.  As Mark Tedesco, Director of EPA’s Long Island Sound Study (LISS) department points out, it was now necessary to move beyond the broad national water quality goals defined for the country as a whole and to begin focus on region-specific plans that would deal with critical local needs. LISS and its subsequent action plans and updates were designed to accomplish this.

 

First and foremost, the 1994 plan and updates in 2004 and 2010 target nitrogen waste and mandate the upgrading of sewage treatment plants throughout the region. The goal is to cut nitrogen discharges by over 50% by 2017. At the same time efforts to discourage improper use of fertilizers by farmers and homeowners are targeted at reducing what are called ‘non-point sources’ of pollution.

 

Antiquated or inadequate sewers are also a priority in the plan. New York City, in particular, is charged with radically reducing the amount of contaminated stormwater overflow that reaches the Sound and efforts are underway in several shore communities to upgrade their systems. As a companion effort to limit pollution of the Sound, both Connecticut and New York have now banned the discharge of any wastewater from commercial and pleasure boats.

 

Finally, numerous communities and groups, with the support of Federal, State, and County governments, are working to restore habitats, improve shore lines, reduce obstacles to fish migration, and limit trash dumping.

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