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Parts of Long Island Sound have improved due to wastewater management

Sabrina Garone
Bridgeport, Connecticut

The Long Island Sound’s water quality has improved over the last year — for the most part. The latest annual report by environmental group Save the Sound awarded improved grades to most parts of the sound.

Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey credited Connecticut and New York for getting major water pollution issues under control.

Lucey warned that now, it's up to residents to do their part.

“The problem now is us," Lucey said. "A lot of the nitrogen imports to the sound are from individuals, we're driving cars or exhaust is putting nitrous oxide up in the air. We have our individual septic tanks, which are leaching nitrogen into the ground. Nitrates, we have fertilizer on our lawns."

Lucey said despite continued effort to keep the water healthy, conservation efforts are hurt by climate change.

“What we're really dealing with is climate change," Lucey said. "So as the water warms up, it speeds up a lot of chemical reactions. And it also doesn't hold as much dissolved oxygen. So you can imagine a stagnant pool with a lot of fertilizer dumped in it's going to be full of algae and not a lot of oxygen. As things get hotter, that's the scenario we're starting to see.”

The report card contains 14 years of data from 50 bays around the Long Island Sound.

Bays closest to New York City remain poor without access to the ocean to flush them out. These are home to the most algal blooms and pollution.

Between New York and Connecticut, the Long Island Sound’s coastal communities are home to about 4 million people. Shellfish, sharks, birds, seals and the occasional whale: this body of water is home to lots of wildlife, too.

Sabrina Garone
Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey talks with WSHU podcast Higher Ground about the health of the sound.

And while it looks like the ocean, technically it’s one of the region's largest estuaries — that’s a place where salt water from the ocean meets fresh water from rivers. It’s what makes estuaries one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth.

For example, while Port Jefferson, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, are only about 19 miles apart across Long Island Sound, and connected by a ferry, they couldn’t be more different, according to the study. Lucey called Bridgeport’s Black Rock Harbor “one of the most challenged harbors” in the region.

“There’s just a greater density of people here,” Lucey told the WSHU podcast Higher Ground. There's a lot more impervious cover. We have rivers coming in. And then there's a big influx of sewage here.”

He joined the podcast over the summer during a tour of Black Rock Harbor. One of his interns, Jenette Ahualt, a high school student in Bridgeport, manned the patrol boat.

Sabrina Garone

“There’s definitely a big difference between Bridgeport and Port Jeff over there,” Ahualt said. “You can just immediately see it in the water. Like here it’s just more cloudy and murky…but when you get over there, it's really beautiful. Kind of, much more vibrant, I guess.”

“And again, it’s just a matter of how many people per square mile,” Lucey interjected. “You have a lot of sewage that's generated in that it's all coming here. So that's why you see a lot of difference in water quality. Because they all need houses to live in, which all have roads to go to them, and the houses and the roads don’t absorb water. They all use toilets and it’s gotta go somewhere.”

This discoloration is from the sewage overflows. When it rains, waste, oil and other debris washes through the city streets down into the sewer drains. And it combines into the sewage collection system. Lucey said it's a very old style. “There's only six communities left in Connecticut that have combined systems that move rainwater and sewage,” he said.

Sabrina Garone
Sewage treatment plant on the Long Island Sound

“Sometimes it would smell so bad, you could smell it on I-95 when you were driving by,” Lucey said. “And there's a number of apartments over there, federal housing, and they're right behind the sewage treatment plant. So they've been breathing this stuff for years.”

The goal of today’s excursion is to give these waters a quick check up.

On the boat, a research team that is studying the impact of stormwater run-off and sewage on the harbor.

“So I'm taking mud samples today,” said Ellie Goetz, a doctoral student from Yale University. “So I have a very long rope connected to a grab sampler, which kind of looks like a claw from a claw machine, and it drops to the bottom and then it snaps closed and you can get a pretty good sample of the benthos.”

Sabrina Garone

Benthos — those are small animals and microorganisms that live on the floor of the ocean.

They are hoping to capture some single-celled organisms called foraminifera, which form shells that can be used as bioindicators for water quality and environmental change.

Those shells can reveal how acidic the water is, as they will decalcify with ocean acidification.

When the contraption is lowered over the side of the boat, the claw grabs a sample of mud at the bottom of the marina.

The mud is a thick, black sludge that smells of rotten eggs. She uses a spoon to scrape all the contents out to be looked at in the lab.

Scientists, like Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucy, monitor the region’s water quality at nearly half of the bays and harbors in Long Island Sound.

These chemicals and changing water conditions are disastrous for the ecosystem.

“The reason that's so important is that you have a $30 million shellfish industry here,” Lucey said. “So, when they're very small is when changes in pH can really affect the integrity of that shell and if it's weak, they're less protected from predators and they can be open to disease …but I think overall Bridgeport is at a point now where they are paying more attention to their community.”

Molly is a news fellow, working on the Long Story Short, Higher Ground, and other podcasts at WSHU.
Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.
A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.