Pollutants in the Long Island Sound are Dangerous: Org

On a yearly basis, 27 billion gallons of water from sewers are washed into the Sound during rainy weather, according to Save Our Sound.

Published June 28, 2024 8:50 AM
3 min read

0:00

-By Caroline Wade

If you swim in the Long Island Sound, you may not know that you risk exposure to invisible contaminants that can cause health problems like strep throat, pinkeye, meningitis, and urinary tract infections.

Save the Sound, a Larchmont-based organization, tested the water at Rye Playland Beach throughout 2023. The group was looking for signs of enterococcus, a fecal bacteria containing lactic acid and many harmful pathogens. It’s normal for a body of water to contain a certain amount of this bacteria, but the healthy level of enterococcus is only around 35 cfu (colony-forming unit). According to records from Sound Health Explorer, a tool that Save the Sound uses to monitor the health of the Sound, those levels tend to vary wildly in the Rye Beach area.

On Aug. 30, 2023, for example, the enterococcus level was approximately 700 cfu — 20 times higher than is safe for human swimming. While the Sound does not always contain such high levels of contamination, over 2023 the water failed safety tests by Save the Sound 50 percent of the time. On average, Rye Playland Beach had an enterococcus level of 81 cfu. In 2023, Save The Sound conducted monthly tests of Rye Beach Water. Of the 12 samples taken, six had a bacteria level of less than 104 cfu and six had higher levels, meaning they were unsafe.

On a yearly basis, 27 billion gallons of water from sewers are washed into the Sound during rainy weather, according to Save Our Sound. This pollution, also be known as Combined Sewage Overflows (CSO), often overwhelms local sewage treatment plants. According to David Ansel, Vice President of Water Protection at Save The Sound, sewage treatment facilities are not able to handle the volume of sewage and stormwater they receive. Ansel said, “Literally billions of gallons of untreated sewage go into New York City waters every year, including the Long Island Sound. Those are the big challenges we are facing.”

Save The Sound’s Director of Water Quality, Peter Linderoth, said that the area surrounding the Long Island Sound is an urbanized estuary. An estuary is a coastal water body in which the freshwater in rivers and streams mix with the salt water contained in the ocean. These estuaries provide benefits and services that sea animals depend on for survival. They are meant to act as buffers for overflowing flood water. However, as coastal areas grow and become increasingly urbanized, the rivers and streams that run through them face increasing pollution. Sewage water, fertilizers, pet waste, wastewater discharge, and more are carried into the Sound. The aging sewage infrastructure in Rye is not strong enough to handle the pollution created by Rye’s citizens.

Rainfall has been increasing in New York state consistently over the last 100 years, and according to a New York State climate impact assessment, “total precipitation is projected to keep increasing by about six to 17 percent by the end of the century.” Sewage runoff will be worsened by these weather changes, unless Rye and the surrounding areas make major upgrades to their water treatment infrastructure.

Enterococcus isn’t the only pollutant of concern. When polluted water enters the sound, it brings in loads of nitrogen that threatens the ecosystem. Excessive nitrogen can lead to plankton decay and oxygen deficits, which make it difficult for fish to survive. “Dead zones,” which have little to no oxygen, lead fish to die at a rapid rate and disrupt the food chain of other local wildlife. Because the Sound “is the second largest estuary on the East Coast and one of North America’s most biologically diverse,” it is vital to protect the species that make their homes there, in addition to its human inhabitants.

Sewage water in The Long Island Sound needs to be addressed immediately, not only because of the human health problems it poses to the many bathers, but also because of its disruption to the environment.

Save The Sound is taking action. The group’s Ecological Restoration Program has already “helped to restore and protect more than 135 acres of marsh using barrier removal, marsh plantings, and green infrastructure.” Save the Sound has formed a Clean Water Investment coalition, which has since invested $3 billion to protect waterways and fight pollution. They have created the Stewardship and Resiliency Program in Connecticut to assist municipalities to mitigate flooding, protect water quality, and minimize damage caused by excessive rain. They have also created the Blue Plan, which has helped the New York and Connecticut governments work together to pass policies and legislation that protect them.

In the meantime, Rye citizens can help:

-Write to your local politicians, encouraging them to invest in updating our wastewater infrastructure.

-Get involved in research and discussions — whether by attending film screenings, reading articles, or getting to know people who work for environmental non-profits.

-Participate in beach cleanups and ecological restoration projects.

-Volunteer or explore other organizations like Save Our Sound, Long Island Sound Futures Fund, or the Marshlands Conservancy.

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