Thursday, April 20, 2006

Which is Worse -- Long Island Sound or Narragansett Bay?

It would be interesting to know which estuary is in worse shape – Long Island Sound or Narragansett Bay. And which is getting more attention paid to it.

I mention this after reading this post on the Narragansett Baykeeper’s blog. Baykeeper John Torgan discusses the report from last week about the Bay’s dead mussels and hypoxia. Here’s what he writes:

Low dissolved oxygen can cause fish kills if it happens suddenly, as it did in Greenwich Bay in August, 2003. It has also caused massive numbers soft-shelled clams to wash up dead, as well as sea stars, oysters, and blue mussels. It is this same algae that piles up on the Warwick and Cranston shorelines causing rotting egg odor so strong it drives people from their homes.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this? First, we have to adopt advanced wastewater treatment practices at all the Bay's major wastewater facilities. This can be done equitably, and no single plant or company is solely responsible. Rhode Island has established nitrogen limits for some wastewater plants, but much of the treated wastewater flowing into the Bay still has very high nitrogen levels. Passing the clean water bond issue in November will help the state raise money for these sorely-needed upgrades.

Second, we need to eliminate cesspools entirely and get coastal communities to upgrade septic systems wherever it is practicable. It's shameful that we still have so many raw pits of sewage and clogged septic systems discharging directly into the Bay.

Third, we have to do a better job monitoring the Bay. Last year, the Rhode Island legislature failed to appropriate any money for Bay monitoring. Without standardized and comprehensive monitoring, we're not getting the information we need to accurately measure the health of the Bay. Lacking complete science is no excuse, though, for delaying decisive action where it is clearly needed.

I clearly remember from the late 1980s and early 1990s that Long Island Sound was also grouped with three other estuaries that were in bad shape and also were the subject of research coordinated by the U.S. EPA under the National Estuary Program – Buzzards Bay, Puget Sound and Narragansett Bay. Being based in neither Massachusetts nor Washington nor Rhode Island, I didn’t pay much attention to those other studies. But from what Torgan writes, I can only assume that the process that led to the ongoing monitoring of water quality in the Sound and the massive, across the board nitrogen reduction program at Sound sewage plants never really took off on Narragansett Bay – I think.

I say I think, because there’s this story in the Providence Journal, about a sewage treatment plant upgrade in West Warwick, R.I. The reporter writes:

Officials yesterday also unveiled the most costly addition to the plant -- a $22-million Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant that greatly reduces the level of nitrogen in the effluent released into the Pawtuxet River bound for Narragansett Bay.

He goes on to say that only four of 11 treatment plants in the state have complied with nitrogen removal regulations.

The story, by the way, is about the dedication of the West Warwick treatment plant. Apparently in Rhode Island they name sewage treatment plants after people. Perhaps we should adopt that practice on the Sound. I could easily think of a bunch of people worthy of having a sewage plant named after them.


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