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Long IslandEnvironment

Long Island Sound Report Card shows fewer than half of waterways in good health

  The "2020 Long Island Sound Report Card" was released during a news conference in Oyster Bay on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday / John Conrad Williams Jr.

The 2020 edition of the Long Island Sound Report Card contains, for the first time, grades of quality of dozens of bays, harbors and coves, allowing local communities to target problematic waterways, said an official of Save the Sound.

Overall the report, released Tuesday, found that "nitrogen pollution remains a major threat to a healthy Sound," resulting in periodic large fish die-offs and seaweed blooms.

"Of the 50 segments monitored across 38 bays, 56% received a "C," "D" or "F." Only six received an "A," the report said. "This shows the outsized impact that pollution from our communities has on coastal waters, especially where tidal exchange with the open Sound is low and pollutant loads from the rivers and streams is high."

Jamie Vaudrey, a marine sciences assistant professor of research at the University of Connecticut, who explained the water quality monitoring in the report card Tuesday, said: "Municipalities throughout the Sound are making investments in green infrastructure, reducing excess water usage and engaging in sustainable urban planning. ... If we maintain our commitment to monitoring and reporting, future report cards will track the progress we are making for achieving that goal for both ourselves and future generations."

Tracy Brown, Save the Sound’s regional director of water protection, said breaking down the grading into local waters filled "a data gap."

"For the past three report cards, we were just using open water data from the [Environmental Protection Agency]," Brown said. But officials realized "that we couldn’t really extrapolate from the open water conditions and tell people what their super local water conditions are."

And since 2017, the nonprofit group has started to fill in that gap, with EPA funding and the assistance of 22 "partner groups" in communities to do the monitoring of 38 bays for its biennial Unified Water Study. Because there can be multiple segments of the bays, the 2020 report for the first time gives grades for some 50 bays and bay segments in both New York and Connecticut.

Save the Sound has enlisted the support of local groups monitoring the bays at the same time using the same methods, Brown said. "It's the first time we’ve had hyper-local data — so it’s [an] apples to apples" comparison. She invited local groups who want to get involved in the monitoring to contact the group at savethesound.org.

Results of the report card, which includes 12 years of data on water quality of the open Sound and two years of data on bays, can be found at SoundHealthExplorer.com, which includes specific actions localities can take to protect and improve bays, Brown said.

The report also found that the condition of the bays was quite variable.

"Readers may be surprised that water quality in the bays cannot be predicted by water quality in adjacent portions of the open Sound," the report said. "This emphasizes the importance of local conditions and the role communities play in degrading or improving their coastal water quality."

Joining Save the Sound for the public unveiling of the report card Tuesday at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay, where the shore hugs Oyster Bay Harbor, were politicians, environmental activists, researchers and community groups that have helped Save the Sound monitor the bays and harbors.

Both Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) spoke of bipartisan efforts to increase federal funding to make water quality improvements to the Sound.

But Suozzi said more needed to be done. "I'm not happy with the numbers at all when it comes to Hempstead Harbor," he said. Segments of the harbor scored a C+ and a D. "That's why these report cards are so important to us. It gives us objective measurements to look at and to monitor what's going on."

Suozzi added, "The Long Island Sound is our national park. It's this amazing, extraordinary national treasure that we've got right in our back yard. ... We have really cleaned up as a community over the years — the federal, state and local governments — to make it better and we can still make it better." He said funding for the Sound increased from $4 million four years ago to $21 million now. "For next year, we're hoping to get it up to $30 million."

"The body of water that is in front of you all," Zeldin told the crowd, "for too many years suffered from pollution, overdevelopment. Fortunately, because of passionate advocates working especially hard with regards to research and advocacy we've seen progress." He said the Sound "supports 200,000 jobs valued at tens of billions of dollars per year."

George Hoffman, of the nonprofit group the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said his group performed the monitoring of the three segments in Port Jefferson Harbor. The middle and outer portions of Port Jefferson Harbor received A grades, while the Inner Port Jefferson Harbor was graded B+.

Hoffman, who lives in Setauket and is coordinator of the task force's water testing program, said Save the Sound invited his group to do the monitoring in 2018. "We’re all volunteers. We’re a citizen-science group. We're not trained scientists but are concerned about the environment," he said.

Heather Johnson is executive director of Friends of the Bay, a conservation group that monitors Mill Neck Creek and Oyster Bay, both graded C+ by the report card; Inner Cold Spring Harbor, graded F; and Outer Cold Spring Harbor, which got a B.

"There's poor [tide] flushing in the inner harbor," Johnson said. "It's the southern part of the harbor and it doesn't have close access to Long Island Sound."

Johnson said several groups have joined to try to address the issue, starting a community shellfishing gardening project in 2017. She said an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. "So if you have garden full of oysters, one would hope you would see improvement in water quality," though she added, "It won’t happen overnight."

Major findings of the 2020 LI Sound Report Card

  • Of 50 bay segments monitored, 56% received a “C,” “D” or “F” grades. Only six received an “A.”
  • Less than half of the bays studied (14 out of 38) are in good health, with a grade of B- or better.
  • Water quality grades are largely consistent with recent years, trending excellent in the east, where there is lower population density, to poor in the west, where there is higher population density.
  • Bays with multiple segments show patterns similar to the larger Sound with inland areas suffering from poor tidal flushing and greater impact from human-sourced pollution.
  • Excess nitrogen from sewers, septic systems, lawn fertilizer and fossil fuel use are major stressors in some bays.

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