An attentive audience listened to a report on the health of Long Island Sound by Tom Andersen at the Meeting House in Rye last Saturday.
By Bill Lawyer
An attentive audience listened to a report on the health of Long Island Sound by Tom Andersen at the Meeting House in Rye last Saturday. Andersen is the New York Program and Communications Coordinator for Save the Sound (STS). He outlined the goals of STS and recounted recent efforts by the state and county governments of New York and Connecticut to improve the Sound’s water quality.
Andersen provided a very graphic and depressing picture of the Sound’s condition back in the summer of 1987, when the waters were so low in oxygen and so high in hydrogen sulfide that lobsters and fish were actually crawling or flipping out of the water in desperation. Scuba divers trying to survey the extent of the destruction had to get out of the water as the huge quantities of dead fish were jamming their oxygen tank equipment.
He noted that the primary threat to the Sound’s marine life is hypoxia, a condition where the amount of dissolved oxygen is less than 3 milligrams per liter. In these conditions, the die-off or drop-off of fish biomass is more than 41 percent. When the levels go below 1 milligram per liter, the die-off is 100 percent.
Andersen described the steps that were taken in the last few decades to greatly expand the scale and effectiveness of pollution control facilities. This included upgrading the sewage treatment plants, cutting back on polluted storm-water runoff, and reducing the amount of raw sewage that was flowing into the Sound.
The goal has been to reduce the nitrogen levels in the sound by 58 to 61 percent. That’s because nitrogen is what causes algae blooms, which then decompose and use up the oxygen in the water.
The good news is that, as the years went by, the regular sampling of the Sound’s water quality and the population of marine life showed a picture of slow but steady improvement.
The bad news is that, suddenly, in 2012, the Sound’s water quality got worse. Overall, Andersen noted, “288.5 square miles of the Sound had dissolved oxygen concentrations below 3 milligrams per liter – the fourth worst year since consistent records started being kept in 1991.”
Before opening up the meeting for questions and discussion, Andersen mentioned two obvious concerns raised by the data. First, it may be that the rising water temperature of the Sound last year caused the hypoxia levels to spike, and climate change means temperatures and those levels will continue to rise. Second, perhaps all the millions of dollars already spent on removing the nitrogen won’t be enough.
Andersen urged people to let their elected officials know that they want government to pay attention to this problem. And, he added, residents should expect to pay higher taxes to cover the cost of additional nitrogen-reduction infrastructure.
Along with questions from the audience, recently elected NY State Assemblyman Steve Otis announced that he is going to be serving on the Assembly’s committee on the environment, and he encouraged people to get involved in dealing with the problem.
Robert Funicello, Environmental Project Director for Westchester County, who was also in the audience, added one bright note. He stated that the County is on-schedule to complete its nitrogen removal projects, and he feels that these will be sufficient to handle the wastewater treatment levels for years to come.
The informative program was moderated by Anne Stillman, President of the Committee to Save The Bird Homestead, which also manages the Meeting House.