Sound health: good signs, but more needed

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A recent report shows improvements in pollution and contaminant levels, but there are new problems

A recent report shows improvements in pollution and contaminant levels, but there are new problems

While scientists say progress is being made in cleaning up Long Island Sound, a report released recently says that many challenges, like slowing the increase of water temperature, still exist.

The 16-page report, called “Sound Health 2006: A Report on Status and Trends in the Health of the Long Island Sound,” was conducted by scientists and researchers with the Long Island Sound Study, a partnership that monitors and helps restore the water quality and ecosystems of Long Island Sound. Mark Tedesco, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound office, says the results of the study are mixed.

“What this report tells us is that many of the efforts that have been made over the past two to three decades have resulted in many improvements,” Tedesco says. According to the report, pollutant discharges are decreasing and, overall, contaminant levels are on the decline. Increasing are the numbers of seal, osprey, striped bass and scup.

“These are all good signs and positive signals, however there are remaining, and new, problems,” says Tedesco. “Cleaning up the Sound is a complex task.”

Conditions such as the continued construction of houses, stores and other developments in the watershed — which makes reducing and controlling polluted water runoff into the Sound difficult — contribute to the environment’s distress, Tedesco says. The oyster and lobster harvests have not rebounded since die-offs in the 1990s, according to the report. Tidal marshes, for still unknown reasons, are disappearing or turning into mud flats. Invasive species of plants and wildlife (such as sea squirts) continue to alter the food web for inhabitants.

In April a group of scientists spoke to a general audience in Bridgeport, Conn., at a conference called the Long Island Sound Citizens Summit. The keynote speaker, Johan Varekamp — a professor at Wesleyan University and a contributor to “Sound Health 2006” — said a review of sea surface temperatures off Long Island reveals a water temperature increase of more than 1 degree Celsius from 1880 to 2001. “Since its formation as a marine-influenced estuary about 10,000 years ago, Long Island Sound has undergone environmental changes through natural processes, but over the last few hundred years the human impact has become the dominant force,” said Varekamp.

Possible results of warmer waters in the Sound include a rise in the sea level, increased levels of low-oxygenated waters, decreases in cold-water adapted species (such as winter flounder) and increases in warm-water species, Varekamp said.

The “Sound Health 2006” follows similar reports issued in 2003 and 2001. For the first time, according to Tedesco, the report seeks to track water quality in each of three sections of the Sound. Using an index of five water quality measures over a 14-year period, conditions in each section, or basin, were characterized as either “good,” “fair” or “poor.” Water quality in the western basin, from Westchester, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., was rated “fair” nearly 70 percent of the time, the report says. Conditions in the central basin were about evenly split between “good” and “fair,” and water quality in the eastern basin was “good” more than 85 percent of the time.

“With this report we want to emphasize that the Sound is a tremendous resource that still needs help,” Tedesco says. “Sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted for its recreational and economic values. It’s important for users of the Sound to maintain a responsible level of stewardship over these waters, and to make their concerns and opinions known to their local officials.”

For a copy of “Sound Health 2006: A Report on Status and Trends in the Health of the Long Island Sound,” call (203) 977-1541 in Connecticut or (631) 632-9216 in New York, or go to www.longislandsoundstudy.net .