Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Sound Health" and its Rosy View of the Health of the Sound

“Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves.”

That’s the headline on a Long Island Sound Study press release that came in the mail the other day announcing that EPA’s Long Island Sound office has compiled its third “Sound Health” report. Now I realize that “Sound Health” is a government document, and I also realize that it probably would take truly catastrophic conditions for any government staff person who answers to an elected official to say that environmental conditions are worsening. But when I read “Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves,” my question was “Compared to what?”

The lobster catch is the lowest its been since 1983. The oyster harvest is lower than it’s been at any time since ’83. There are a lot more striped bass but, among the anadromous fish, there are virtually no blueback herring or alewives anymore (which isn’t mentioned in the report). Fish biomass (that is, the weight of fish caught in regular trawl surveys conducted by the Connecticut DEP) is the same as it was in 1992.

And what of hypoxia? Each summer dissolved oxygen concentrations fall, particularly in the western half of the Sound. The drop happens because nitrogen, which is a component of sewage, acts as a fertilizer in the Sound and fuels the growth of algae. When the algae die, the decomposition process uses up oxygen. The physical characteristics of the Sound’s water column prevent an oxygen recharge until the cooler days of September arrive. The result is that for a good part of the summer – from late July through August, give or take a week – a good part of the Sound can support virtually no fish.

The report notes that 34 of the 105 sewage plants in the Sound area have been upgraded to remove nitrogen, and that there is now 47,000 fewer pounds of nitrogen a year reaching the Sound – a 24 percent decrease over the past decade or so.

The result has indeed been an improvement in water quality, as measured by hypoxia. But, as I said, compared to what? Compared to the late 1980s, when hypoxia was at its worst. But when I go to this site and click on water quality measures and then look at graph 9 (which shows the number of square miles and the number of days that dissolved oxygen concentrations were below 3 parts per million), I see a bad period (1987, ’88 and ’89) followed by a better bad period (’90, 91, 92), followed by another bad period (’93-’96), followed by a better period (’97-2002), followed by another period (’03, ‘04, ’05). Over two decades, water quality in the Sound has fluctuated between bad and less bad.

What the report doesn’t show however is that essentially all of the Sound between Nassau County and Westchester County is not just hypoxic in late summer, but severely hypoxic – that is, dissolved oxygen falls below 1 ppm, which is considerably worse than 3 ppm.

I realize there’s a difficult public perception problem for the Long Island Sound Study people who are compiling and interpreting the data for the report. They are committed to the cleanup and they want to make sure it continues, and so they want to show that progress is being made. One sure way of getting support and continued public funding is to show that you are doing what you set out to do and that so far the money has been well spent. And of course in many ways it has.

But if they emphasize areas in which there’s been little progress or, worse, a regression, they risk having people throw up their hands in despair and say the cleanup is not worth it.

The cleanup is definitely worth it. What I worry about is that reports which emphasize (over-emphasize?) progress will inspire complacency. I’ve argued elsewhere that the amount of media attention paid to the Sound recently has been appallingly low – people have barely noticed that over the last few summers the western end of the Sound has been in really bad shape.

The Sound Health report, and the additional charts and data on the LISS website, have tons of information. The best thing may be to read it yourself and make your own judgment about whether “Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves.”


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker