Sunday, August 21, 2011

Save the Sound for Babies

If you’re involved in Long Island Sound issues, you shouldn’t take it for granted that people know what’s going on. The New Haven Register’s TV and radio reporter, Joe Amarante, wrote a rambling, amusing column today about his vacation. It included these three paragraphs (the first sentence is a reference to the SoundVision report):

During that week on the shore came news of the continuing effort to restore Long Island Sound. Thousands of people, rich and poor, enjoy the water, sandy beaches, recreation and business of the Sound. You’d think it would be a high priority in our state, so kids can enjoy its waves and beauty years from now (or just marvel at the posh estates on the water).

I don’t understand the logistics of improving the Sound, really, except they say it involves cutting down on nitrogen.

Having grown up in Morris Cove in the 1960s, I say, “Oo-fa, nitrogen? That’s what Costco puts in my car’s tires!” What we’re really talking about is raw sewage and fertilizer spilling into this key body of water, no? It’s 2011, and we can’t keep sewage from finding its way to the Sound after a rain?

Joe (if I may call you that), the nitrogen issue is this: when nitrogen from sewage treatment plants and other sources reaches the Sound, it acts as a fertilizer and spurs the growth of algae in unnaturally large amounts. When the algae die, the process of decay removes dissolved oxygen from the water. A healthy estuary contains about 8 parts per million of dissolved oxygen. In July and August (and sometimes September), dissolved oxygen concentrations in the western half of the Sound sink below 3 ppm and sometimes fall as low as near zero. This creates a huge area of the Sound where marine life can no longer live and where sometimes fish and shellfish essentially suffocate to death. An analogy would be if somehow we removed the air from a huge forest, making it unlivable for birds and other creatures.

Nitrogen removal from sewage treatment plants is a huge, ongoing project that will ultimately cost about $8 billion, but there has been progress. The Long Island Sound Study’s biennial report, released earlier this month, said this about nitrogen removal:

Since the early 1990s, when baseline discharges were calculated at 59,147 pounds per day, a total of 25,444 equalized pounds per day have been reduced. The ultimate goal is to reduce point source nitrogen inputs to Long Island Sound by another 11,000 pounds.

Fertilizer and stormwater runoff in general are a smaller but still important part of the problem.

About raw sewage you are right to be amazed (and presumably a little outraged) when you ask: It’s 2011, and we can’t keep sewage from finding its way to the Sound after a rain?

Some cities -- Bridgeport and New Haven, for example -- send raw sewage into the Sound after a rain on purpose, using an antiquated system called combined sewer overflows. They are designed to carry sewage to treatment plants during dry weather but to bypass the treatment plants and empty directly into local waterways when it rains.

Replacing them with sewers that are not combined -- that separate stormwater from wastewater -- is enormously expensive. This is from another Long Island Sound Study report:

Full separation of [Bridgeport’s] stormwater and wastewater systems is projected to cost $560 million and take decades. The city has been making progress, though, and has already completed seven projects to achieve this goal with a total expenditure of $50 million. The next project scheduled will achieve separation in the Downtown, eastern portion of the South End, and northern portion of Black Rock. This project will cost $25 million, is projected to be completed in 2017, and will solve most flooding and CSO problems with a solution that (after construction) will be below ground and quite intensive.

Re-read that first sentence: it’s going to take decades! What that means, Joe, is that the work probably will be finished when your grandson is a grandfather. But in the meantime, we need to keep making progress, year by year. Let’s hope we do, for now and for your grandson’s grandchildren.



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