It’s one of the nation’s most important (and underappreciated) estuaries, even if it’s often treated like an open sewer. Now an unusual coalition of advocates from labor, industry, and the environment is breathing new life into Long Island Sound.
On a humid morning in late July, Nancy Seligson piloted her 17-foot motorboat slowly out of a tidal inlet and into Larchmont Harbor near the western end of Long Island Sound—a 110-mile long, 1,320-square-mile estuary sprawling along the coasts of Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester County, and New York City. As Seligson navigated the murky waters, a great blue heron flew out of the reeds, followed closely by an equally graceful great egret. Farther out in the harbor, two American oystercatchers perched on a barnacle-covered rock, their long orange beaks pointing toward New York City, a few miles to the west.
Once she was by the last of the moored boats, Seligson, a councilwoman for the town of Mamaroneck, New York, who also co-chairs the Long Island Sound Citizens Advisory Committee, picked up speed and began to point out the sites. There was Huckleberry Island, one of the largest heron rookeries in the New York tri-state area; Davids Island, a 78-acre former military fort that has eluded numerous attempts at development; and Execution Rock, where the British allegedly dispatched prisoners during the Revolutionary War by tying them up and letting the incoming tide drown them. As cormorants dove around the boat looking for fish, Seligson drank in the salty air. “We live in an incredibly developed area,” she said, “but when you come out here it lets your soul soar a little. The air is different out here.”
After an hour, clouds began to gather, and Seligson headed home, docking moments before the skies opened up for the second time that morning. For Seligson and the other 28 million people who live within 50 miles of the sound, the rain meant they might not be able to go swimming, whether or not the sun came out later. The sound may look clean, but many of the 105 sewage-treatment plants that line its shores leak raw sewage and other pathogens into the estuary. In New York City and parts of Connecticut, even small amounts of rain can cause a plant’s sewage to overflow, raising bacteria levels and making it dangerous to swim or eat shellfish.
These pollutants also complicate matters for the 120 or so species of fish and the more than 400 species of birds living in or around the sound for at least part of the year. Migrating shorebirds stop over; lobsters congregate here, at the southern end of their inshore range; sea turtles visit in summer to feed on shellfish and crustaceans. “It’s a mixing area where you get freshwater, marine, and anadromous species, and there aren’t too many places on the globe where that happens,” says Penny Howell, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
For humans, meanwhile, it’s one of the most heavily used estuaries in the United States, pumping at least $5 billion into the region’s economy every year through power generation, recreation, commercial fishing, and shipping. But unlike, say, Chesapeake Bay, restoring Long Island Sound has yet to attract widespread popular support. One reason, perhaps, is that the public has access to less than 20 percent of the sound—and much less in highly developed areas. Even some public beaches are prohibitively expensive for out-of-towners. “It’s hard to get people to care about something if they don’t know they can go there,” Seligson says. “I tell them that it’s the most important estuary in the country and that it’s used in every possible fashion.”
Long Island Sound, though, does have its share of dedicated champions. In the early 1990s a coalition of environmental, industry, and labor representatives formed a campaign to reduce pollutants and restore the sound’s habitat. The unusual alliance caught the attention of Congress. Since then tenacious civic advocacy has combined with federal efforts to help reverse the sound’s ecological decline.
But the battle must be waged on multiple fronts, and progress can be maddeningly slow. New threats from the energy industry and a mysterious environmental fungus could undermine the hard work. Meanwhile, time is running out for the wildlife that relies on the sound for survival.
Pollution in Long Island Sound dates back to the early 1600s, when the colonists cleared the area of trees. By the 1820s hat factories on the Housatonic and Still rivers were dumping mercury into the water, contaminating the sound’s fish. Conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the 20th century, though it wasn’t until 1987 that people realized the extent of the damage. That year hypoxia, a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water, killed large numbers of fish. By the summer of 1989 oxygen levels in about 330 square miles of the sound had fallen to less than 3 parts oxygen per million parts water, the threshold at which most life can survive. Researchers soon discovered that sewage-treatment plants were releasing 36,500 tons of nitrogen into the sound each year, spurring a growth in marine plants, which used up the oxygen as they decomposed and sank to the bottom. “When you have big, vast dead areas of the sound, that cuts the middle out of the food chain,” says Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.
Although the amount of nitrogen coming from sewage-treatment plants declined nearly 25 percent between 1994 and 2004, hypoxia remains a problem and reached near-record levels in 2003. Increased runoff from farms, lawns, and roads sends billions of gallons of contaminated water into the sound each year, say environmental advocates. Illegal connections to the sanitary sewer system and overworked septic systems also play a part.
Thanks to this toxic brew, nearly half of the sound’s water is in poor or fair condition, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and certain species have crashed. In 1999, for example, high water temperatures and hypoxia left lobsters vulnerable to parasitic amoebae that decimated what was once a $40 million industry.
Today the lobster population continues to decline, and the number of full-time lobstermen in Connecticut has plummeted from a few hundred to about 40. “Most of these guys are hanging on by a thread,” says Nick Crismale, president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association.
A new proposal by Broadwater Energy threatens the few lobstermen left. The company wants to build a natural gas storage facility—eight stories tall, 1,200 feet long, and 180 feet wide—that would float on the sound about 10 miles off eastern Long Island. Because a no-trespassing zone of more than a square mile would surround the structure, Crismale says the facility would put 30 percent to 40 percent of his traps off-limits. “I understand Long Island and New York need energy, but to put me out of business?”
Dozens of environmental and civic groups have joined the opposition, insisting the structure would be both a giant eyesore and susceptible to spills, explosions, and leaks. The project would also include some 22 miles of undersea pipeline with potentially adverse consequences for the sound’s floor.
In much shallower water, a mysterious disease is killing marsh plants by rotting their roots, especially around tidal creeks. Though many factors might be contributing to the dieback, one hypothesis is that environmental stresses are making the plants vulnerable to a fungus, possibly brought over from Africa by the wind. “In Connecticut we’ve had scientists looking at marshes for dozens of years, and we’ve never seen this kind of thing before,” says Ron Rozsa, a coastal ecologist for the Connecticut DEP.
Development, which has already destroyed one-third of the sound’s tidal marshes, can also disrupt the flow of water and alter food sources, making the remaining habitat functionally useless for a range of species, including the saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow.
For most of the past half-century Long Island Sound has suffered from beach closings, contaminated shellfish beds, and floating debris. Despite the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress recognized that more had to be done, and in 1985 it created the Long Island Sound Study, a cooperative effort led by the EPA, to address the sound’s problems. In 1994, with the support of the states of New York and Connecticut, local and national environmental groups, various municipal representatives, sportfishing organizations, and marina owners, the EPA adopted a management plan that called for a 58.5 percent reduction in nitrogen by 2014. Theoretically, this will keep oxygen levels high enough to support life. The guidelines also called for minimizing beach closures, restoring at least 2,000 acres of coastal habitat and 100 miles of river habitat, and increasing public access to the sound.
Another milestone occurred in 1990 when David Miller (until recently Audubon New York’s executive director) launched his Listen to the Sound campaign. At that time environmentalists were pushing for pollution reductions. In response to this demand, the state proposed a nitrogen cap, which many labor unions originally opposed because they feared it would mean a building moratorium in Westchester County. On a frigid winter day in 1992 about 1,200 Teamsters protested outside a meeting of sound supporters. But Miller had met with some of the labor leaders beforehand and pointed out that modernizing sewage-treatment plants would create large-scale construction projects. Then, at the rally, he spoke about finding “a marriage of ideas.” The environmentalists, who hoped to improve the sound’s water quality, and the construction industry, which later calculated that 50,000 new jobs would be created for every billion dollars spent, had reached common ground.
Within six months the Clean Water/Jobs Coalition, as the group called itself, was lobbying in Washington. “The legislators, when they see the coalition we’ve built together—labor, environmentalists, industry—they’re quite impressed, and they respond,” says Ross Pepe, president of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley. “Individually, none of us would be able to marshal the type of support we’ve been able to get.”
The Clean Water/Jobs Coalition reversed decades of discord between parties that often found themselves on opposite sides of an environmental issue. “Some [congressmen] said, ‘We’re going to meet with you just to make sure you’re really in the same room asking for the same thing,’ ” recalls Miller. Adds Jim Melius, the administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Tri-Fund, “It’s very rare that construction organizations and labor unions and environmental organizations meet with politicians together. Usually it’s shouting and screaming, appointments a half-hour apart for opposite reasons.”
Originally the coalition and its allies pushed for a bill to fund new sewage-treatment plants nationwide. When that was unsuccessful, it narrowed its focus to the sound. Congress rewarded its efforts in 2000 by passing the Long Island Sound Restoration Act, which authorized $40 million a year to improve water quality. Although the actual level of funding—an average of $5 million to $7 million a year—has never come close to that, it has augmented the hundreds of millions of dollars the states and municipalities were already spending. Environmentalists are hoping the act will be the catalyst to move the other projects forward. Though the federal government has provided only about 5 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have recently been poured into upgrading sewage-treatment plants, that money has been important to smaller communities, which can’t afford the improvements on their own.
Not only are new sewage-treatment plants less likely to overflow, but the most modern ones can remove up to 90 percent of the nitrogen that would otherwise enter the sound. And more upgrades are on the way. Last year New York City, the main contributor of nitrogen to the sound, settled a lawsuit with New York State by agreeing to spend at least $700 million to improve its sewage-treatment facilities. Though the lobster and winter flounder populations are still at or near record lows, many other species, including striped bass, have recovered to historically high levels.
In 2000 the second Listen to the Sound campaign aimed to build support for the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act. This bill, sponsored by all four senators and 31 of the 34 members of the House of Representatives from Connecticut and New York, passed last September and authorized $25 million a year to protect coastal habitat and improve public access. “The development of properties in and around the sound has proceeded at such a rapid pace in recent years,” says former Representative Rob Simmons (R-CT), who worked to ensure the bill’s passing. “It’s incredibly important that we try to secure properties for future generations.”
To see the practical effects, it’s worth visiting the Great Meadows Unit of Connecticut’s Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, where heavy machinery was used last spring to dig tidal pans and creeks on dozens of acres, and to remove barriers to tidal flow. Just a few months later an area once overloaded with phragmites and other invasive species gave way to cordgrass and other native plants. Least sandpipers chased one another along the exposed flats, while ospreys and northern harriers soared overhead.
Patrick Comins of Audubon Connecticut, and Sara Williams, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, know this area better than just about anyone. In late July they braved hordes of mosquitoes and 95-degree temperatures to inspect the site. The unit itself, roughly half the size of Central Park, includes an extensive salt marsh and coastal scrub habitat with more than 270 bird species. “It’s this remnant habitat island,” says Comins. “Any birds in the area generally find themselves coming to the refuge.”
Much of the surrounding area, however, is unprotected. Nearby Pleasure Beach and Long Beach—which together make up one of Connecticut’s longest barrier beaches—are currently owned by the towns of Bridgeport and Stratford. A line of mostly abandoned cottages dots the mile-and-a-half walk to the end of the beach, where the remnants of an old amusement park still stand. Wrecked cars rust in the overgrown grasses, which are slowly reclaiming what was once roads and parking lots. Somehow wildlife has made a comeback here. Piping plovers and least terns nest on the beach, northern harriers hunt over the marsh and dunes, and ospreys perch on utility poles. The Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to purchase the sites before the towns sell them to developers. “Just about every parcel the service acquires these days has structures on it,” says Williams. She likes to imagine that one day an interpretive center and a pier will replace the detritus there now. Adds Comins: “It’s a thriving ecosystem as is. The only issue is how to restore human access to it in a way the people won’t love it to death.”
For Comins and other advocates, the marsh’s resurrection as wildlife habitat gives them confidence about the waterway’s future—especially if funding continues. They note that swimming, fishing, sailing, and birdwatching is better than it has been for years, and that the new sewage-treatment plants should further improve water quality. At the same time, they realize the job has just begun. “We’re not at the point where it’s too late,” Comins says. “It’s just going to take a groundswell of political and public will.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
To learn about Audubon’s Long Island Sound campaign, go to http://audubonaction.org/audubon/home.html. Urge your federal legislators to fully fund the Long Island Sound Restoration Act and the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act. To see how your individual actions—eliminating or reducing your use of toxic chemicals in your house or yard, for example—can benefit the sound, go to http://www.audubon.org/bird/at_home.
At the East River Marsh in Guilford, Connecticut, a sea of cordgrass stretches out over several hundred acres adjacent to Long Island Sound. This is prime habitat for a small brown bird with a streaked breast, gray ear patch, and ocher-yellow face that breeds only along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina. “The saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow is probably the single species that Long Island Sound is most important for,” says Chris Elphick, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Connecticut. He has studied the East River Marsh since 2002 and has determined that about 1,000 saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows live there, with thousands more at similar sites along the Connecticut coast.
Nonetheless, BirdLife International believes the species is facing an even higher risk of extinction than the federally threatened piping plover and has identified it as one of the highest priorities for bird conservation in North America. The species’ global population, half of which lives in southern New England, is estimated to be about 100,000, and it may be declining. “It’s a very rough approximation,” Elphick says. “There are no numbers, and that’s one of the problems. Salt-marsh species are just not monitored.” The sparrow, which spends most of its time on the ground in search of food, is one of only two bird species (the seaside sparrow is the other one) in the world found exclusively in coastal marshes. But many of these marshes have been destroyed outright, while others have been drained, diked, and diverted to the point at which cordgrass—which the sparrow depends on for nesting—no longer grows. Instead, phragmites, an invasive reed that can grow higher than the tallest person, has taken over, obliterating habitat.
Although development has been reduced in Atlantic coastal marshes, thanks to the Clean Water Act and other protective laws, rising sea level now poses the most serious threat. The birds nest only in the high marsh that floods twice a month during spring tides. Since they have a 24- to 26-day nesting cycle, the reproductive window of opportunity is quite small, and already about one-third of nests are washed away during high tide, according to Elphick’s study. “A change in flooding height of just a few centimeters could be enough to wipe them out,” he says.
“Along with polar bears, the saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow may be ground zero for species at risk from climate change,” adds Patrick Comins, Audubon Connecticut’s director of bird conservation. As pressure on the sparrow mounts, East River Marsh and Long Island Sound’s other large tidal marshes remain more crucial than ever.—J.G.