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This Fine Piece of Water, Reflections Part V

Sewage

            The focus of this chapter was on the importance of removing nitrogen from the Sound.  It was clear that it would be important to remove nitrogen from sewage with a focus on treatment plant improvements, separating storm water from waste water to prevent overflow, reducing acid rain, re-evaluating appropriate land-use procedures, and reducing the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers.

            Having visited wastewater treatment plants more times than I’d like to count (it is an annual field trip with multiple classes), I have seen the process first-hand and spoken with the engineers that design the plants.  Primary treatment and secondary treatment when performed in the traditional capacity only remove a small fraction of the nitrogen in wastewater.  Since nitrogen is a limiting factor for plant growth, if we are continually pumping nitrogen into the Sound it will act as a fertilizer, contributing to the hypoxia observed in the summer.  One major solution to the problem of hypoxia is to improve wastewater treatment to remove more nigtrogen.

            At Stamford’s Wastewater Treatment system, engineer Jeannette Semon has shown that nitrogen removal can be greatly improved without a huge cost expenditure.  “Semon wrings about 70 percent of the nitrogen from the wastewater…  Achieving the reduction required no huge capital expenditures, no construction tanks, no extensions of the network or pipes and sluiceways.”  What it did require was additional time in treatment, which means that extra space was needed to contain the wastewater in order for this practice to take place.  The bacteria that breakdown the ammonia in wastewater through nitrification will convert it to nitrite, and then to nitrate.  Allowing additional bacteria the extra time needed to go through the denitrification process to convert that nitrate to nitrogen gas, which is released to the atmosphere, requires additional time.  For wastewater treatment plants that are already operating at or above capacity, this process could not happen unless the plants were upgraded.

 

The Cleanup

            In this chapter, we are introduced to the political wrangling that must go on in order for a cleanup of the Sound to take place.  It became clear that the biggest threat to the Sound was overdevelopment.  As Susan Bellinson, president of SoundWatch puts it: “More population means more sewage, more floatable garbage, more fertilizers, more auto exhaust, more oil leakage, more boats in the marinas, more blacktopping, more hardening of shoreline areas, which reduces the biological filtration properties of the land.”

            Builders battled with environmentalists, saying that putting a cap on wastewater treatment plants’ nitrogen release would essentially mean a moratorium on development, since more people means more sewage.  The arguments went on and on, until it was decided that sewage would be capped at 1990 levels, and the builders and environmentalists realized that they could be on the same side.  After all, upgrading wastewater treatment plants would create jobs for builders.  The estimated cost of reducing nitrogen by 58.5% over fifteen years would be $650 million dollars, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound from 39,000 tons to 16,185 tons.  The environmental benefits would be huge, and it was estimated that oxygen would fall no lower than 3 milligrams per liter, and “hypoxia would have virtually no effect on the abundance of winter flounder of lobsters; its effect on the abundance of scup would be reduced by 61 percent; and its effect on fish abundance in general would be cut by 97 percent.”

 

The New Sound

            Andersen begins the chapter by reminiscing about a fishing trip that he took in July of 1987.  At that time, the hypoxia was in full swing.  “And yet if we could have had some sense of it… if we could have heard the roar of the rivers of sewage, tasted the sour drops of acid rain, watched the uncountable discharges of storm sewers; if we could have seen the algae growing and dying, felt whatever the flounder and blackfish felt as oxygen disappeared; if somehow we could have seen into the future, seen that the Sound had become little more than a stagnant, weed-choked sink—perhaps then we would have been hit with a gut revulsion, a raw emotion to move us to act.  Perhaps it would not have taken another four years merely to get a policy that mandated sewage plants to cap their nitrogen flow at 1990 levels and almost eleven years to get an agreement to begin reducing nitrogen.”  Isn’t that the case with all environmental problems? If we could see and feel the destruction we’re doing, see into the future, would we delay our actions?

            Anderson then goes on to show Norwalk as an example of a local community that has done a good job restoring its oyster beds.  Soundkeeper Terry Backer says of oystering: “It’s an appropriate use of the water.  It’s an industry that’s very sensitive to the environment, and has to be.  It’s what the Sound should be used for.”  Shellfishing is highly monitored by the state, and the biggest problems come from wastewater.  When it rains, many shellfish beds are closed because we know that will lead to an increase in untreated sewage released into the Sound.  Many beds have been closed until further notice.  I would take the recent reopening of shellfish beds in Greenwich as a sign that the cleanup and the efforts to reduce nitrogen in the Sound are making progress.

 

Dead Oysters, Dead Lobsters

            In the Afterword, Andersen discusses oyster and lobster die-offs in the late 1990’s.  While sewage is characterized as the predominant threat to the Sound throughout the book, the Afterword portrays another possible threat to Long Island Sound: global warming.  Andersen calls this idea “one that seems equally plausible: that the die-off of oysters and lobsters was linked to increased water temperatures, which were linked to global warming.  If that turns out to be the case, the prospect is even gloomier than that of oystermen and lobstermen losing their means of making a living.”  In the future, will we see that climate change will take the place of wastewater as the biggest environmental threat to the water quality, ecosystems, and people of Long Island Sound?

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part IV

Reflections Part I

Reflections Part II

Reflections Part III

 

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Strangling the Sound

            This chapter details the role of nitrogen in the Sound, as well as the consequences of too much nitrogen.  I found the discussion of salt marshes to be particularly interesting because my father often speaks of making salt hay in Stony Creek when he was a child, but my family no longer keeps up that tradition, so I did not know much about salt marshes. 

            The amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound has risen dramatically.  “Four centuries of ever-increasing development and population had swollen the Sound’s burden of nitrogen to 91,000 tons per year, a 128 percent increase over the estimated 40,000 tons that flowed to the Sound before European settlement.  The additional 51,300 tons of nitrogen included 29,600 tons from sewage plants and factories, and 8,800 tons from storm water runoff.”  The effects of eutrophication began to be evident as oxygen levels decreased, but unfortunately the hypoxia was largely ignored, until repeated crashes that seemed to occur in August.  In 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that “compared with 1972, there were 86 percent fewer benthic animals and 55 percent fewer benthic species.  In other words, almost nine out of ten individual animals, and more than half of all the kinds of animals, were wiped out.”  Such large effects on the populations in only a single year’s time are simply terrifying.

            The overall message that I got in this chapter was the need for an effective way to remove nitrogen from wastewater.  While nitrogen will runoff from many different places, I believe that focusing on the wastewater treatment plants will be a good start.

The Brink of Disaster

            My blue-collar roots made the story of John Fernandes resonate with me.  Being raised on a farm myself, and marrying into a fishing family, I can only imagine how heart-breaking and scary it was for Fernandes to pull up what he thought would be 300 pound worth of lobsters to sell, and instead finding that they were all dead.  As Phil Briggs from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said, “They’re fearful for their livelihood right now, and I don’t blame them.” 

            Researcher Barbara Welsh lays out the scenario that as the western parts of the Sound became hypoxic, the lobsters, fish, and other mobile animals migrated eastward, in search of oxygen.  So while western lobsterman like Fernandes weren’t catching anything, there were record catches toward the middle and east of the sound.

            Anderson goes on to describe that 90% of lobsters in the Sound are caught when they reach their legal size, so it is important to the survival of the species that they are able to reproduce before being caught.  He also describes the many illegal measures that lobstermen will take, including territoriality, keeping shorts in underwater cages, scraping the eggs off females.  The consequences for getting caught are high, including losing your license.  I am friends with some commercial lobster fishermen who live on a little island in Maine.  The older lobstermen tell tales of territoriality in their early days, and they all talk about getting buoys getting cut and losing pots, people hauling someone else’s pot, and boats getting sunk.  Even in the last five years, a man that I know had his boat sunk when he moved into a new town.  Their description of protecting the lobster population is more encouraging: females with eggs have their tails notched, and in Maine it is illegal to catch a lobster with a notched tail, since it is known that she is a breeding female.  This is the type of management that I would like to see in the Sound.  However, there are decreasing yields of lobsters in Maine as well, and the prices have also dropped, making, as Anderson describes, a man work much harder for the same amount of money.

            Back in Connecticut, we see fisherman continuing to leave the business, selling or losing their boats, just as we see farming families selling or losing their farms.  I am hopeful that new methods of aquaculture and a better understanding of the impact of human activity as well as ecological influences on populations will lead to more sustainable management of the Sound’s fish and shellfish, both for our own benefit and the health of the Sound.

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This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part II

Reflections Part I can be read here.

Adriaen Block and the First Explorers

            I can’t help but state that I found this part the least interesting of the book so far, and I kind of see it as pointless to learn about who explored the Sound.  I guess my apathy comes from the fact that the explorers didn’t discover the Sound, since the Native Americans had been living there sustainably for many years.  I do, however see the value in learning about how they navigated and how they mapped different areas.  Overall, I am sympathetic to the Native Americans in that the explorers came in, bringing deadly diseases with them, and exploited the natural resources of the area, especially beavers.  It’s amazing to me that a population could be reduced so quickly, and the prime example is when Block complained that some of the Native Americans would only take what beavers they needed, and no more.  That is the definition of sustainability, scoffed at by the explorers.  The explorers also tricked the Native Americans into selling their land, when they thought they were only selling the rights to use the land.  “They had no notion of private property; ownership of land… would have been as incomprehensible as ownership of the wind or clouds.”  And so, by exploiting resources and Native Americans, the explorers decimated the populations of beaver and people alike.

 

The American Mediterranean

            I found this chapter to be interesting because it discussed the trade routes throughout all of the different towns I am familiar with.  I believe that because these are towns I know, my interest was held where otherwise I would be disinterested.  I enjoyed reading Yale President Timothy Dwight’s recounts of travels, and I appreciated learning about the sealing and whaling industries that operated out of the Sound.  As someone who does really care to learn about history, I was interested to learn about the effect that the Embargo Act of 1807 had on the shipping industry in the Sound, and how that shaped the self-sufficiency of each town.

 

The Industrial Age

            This chapter summarized the rise of industry in Connecticut.  It was interesting to see how the Embargo Act contributed to the growth of Connecticut manufacturing, and how people like Eli Whitney, the Porter brothers and Aaron Benedict contributed to the industry.  As industry boomed, so did the population, especially in cities.  This of course contributed to wastes, both industrial and biological, and pollution of the rivers upon which the cities and mills were built rose.  The description of the need for sewage treatment was an interesting one, and the government’s pattern of investigating a problem but failing to follow through with appropriate solutions was evident in the recognition of the need for treating wastes, but the failure to appropriately do so.

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