Environmental scorecard: Subtle changes, not all for the good

The good news and bad news are one and the same in the Council on Environmental Quality’s 39th annual report on the state of Connecticut’s environment:

Very little has changed.

“The days of rapid change are over,” said Karl Wagener, CEQ’s executive director. “What we see now is very subtle changes, not all good. It’s hard to draw conclusions from a lot of data that appear not to change.”

But even without dramatic shifts, the report, which covers 2010 in broad strokes and generally steers clear of root causes of conditions or how to rectify them, revealed a few ominous indicators including a pervasive one: That climate change is taking a toll that is not easy to reverse.

Exhibit A is air quality. While the CEQ’s data showed the average air quality improved last year, the state registered 29  “bad air” days, the most since 2005.  There were 24 high ozone days in summer and five high fine particle days from smoke and haze in winter.

True, it was the third hottest summer on record, which meant in addition to heat-generated ozone, air conditioners ran more, which required more electricity, which meant greater reliance on our dirtiest power plants, which then created even more pollution.

Paul Farrell, Department of Environmental Protection assistant director of planning and standards in the bureau of air management said their pollution data from around the state showed a more nuanced and slightly more optimistic result. “If you look at air quality and compare it to days over 90 degrees, it’s actually been trending down,” he said.

But any notion that the summer of 2010 was simply an aberration is not a good bet, he and others said, and improvement will have to come from proactive measures like cleaner energy sources, not the hope that the weather will moderate.

“We get it and we can see where energy policy can affect environmental quality,” Farrell said. “In the future we will have to marry environmental concerns with energy policy to get what want – clean air everyday and affordable power.”

But, said Dawn Mays-Hardy, Connecticut director for health promotion and public policy at the American Lung Association of New England, a bad air day still means bad air. For people whose health is already compromised, such days make breathing harder and risk further problems regardless of the yearly air quality average.

The Association’s own data gives every county in the state an “F” on pollution and no county rated higher than a “C” for fine particulates. She worries that skimpy spending in a difficult economy on air quality remediation will mean higher healthcare costs down the road.

“We pay either way,” she said. “Prevention saves lives.”

Other major results in the survey focused on Long Island Sound and the state’s rivers. Among positive trends, nitrogen levels in the Sound continued to decline and for the first time in years, oxygen levels in certain parts of the Sound increased – and did so dramatically.

“The state has been doing a good job of investing in infrastructure to get raw sewage out of water bodies and doing sewage treatment,” said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, a program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “What the CEQ report showed with nitrogen reduction is that money is making a difference.

Infrastructure projects also create jobs, Schmalz pointed out, and with the new administration, there is promise of a vastly ramped up effort. Last year, the state put about $135 million into sewage treatment plants and other clean water projects. This year it could be $326 million and next, about $332 million, which together are projected to create 8,000 to 12,000 jobs.

But even that increased commitment will not address the huge amounts of contaminants that get into water bodies from things like runoff from fertilizers and pesticides.

On the flip side, the CEQ report showed an increase in beach closings due to pollution and a continuation of a wildlife trend: growth in populations of warm-water marine life that traditionally have lived south of here – summer flounder, moonfish, butterfish and scup–and a decrease in those that prefer cold water–notably, lobster.

Water temperature, which has inched up as climate trends have shifted, is likely one reason. But director of Connecticut Marine Fisheries Dave Simpson said some of the credit goes to successful species management.

“We’re seeing more haddock in the last several years than we’ve seen in previous 20,” he said. “That’s a cold water species so that runs counter to this.”

Neither Simpson nor Schmalz was ready, however, to give up on lobster, which the CEQ survey showed mired at historically low levels. Expectations have to be adjusted they said, and management is critical through several programs that remain in place. But waiting for the weather to revert to old patterns: “The whims of mother nature are not really great policy,” Schmalz said.

The CEQ report showed land preservation trends to be seriously lagging. The goal of conserving 21 percent, about 673,000 acres, of the state’s land area by 2023 is believed to be far off a needed pace of 11,000 acres a year.

“Believed,” because there’s no up-to-date database of how much preserved land actually exists. Only land set aside with state money is being tracked. Legislation to set up a registry that would also include what’s thought be thousands of acres set aside annually by municipalities and land trusts, failed last year and with a pricetag, is likely to fail again this year.

Farmland preservation has a goal of 130,000 acres. But fewer than 40,000 acres have been preserved so far and with thousands of acres lost to development yearly even the 1,370 acres preserved each of the last tow years may still translate as a farmland loss. Forestland also continues to shrink.

But the numbers may be seriously incomplete. Some rely on data that, while accurate and achieved through satellite surveillance as part of a project at the University of Connecticut, only go through 2006.

Preservation advocates like to point out that it’s cost effective to preserve land. Again, however, the data they rely on that show working lands like farms generate more public revenue than the cost of services they receive, while residential land is just the opposite — are from the 1990s.

“Open space and farmland actually help subsidize all the residential costs despite the economy,” said Dawn Adiletta, interim executive director of Connecticut Farmland Trust. “On the flip side, the economy is making it crushingly difficult to support farmland preservation.”

That money issue – whether funding will exist for programs to help turnaround some of the trends highlighted in the CEQ report – hangs over just about everything – publicly funded or otherwise. Including, it turns out, one of the more curious findings in the report. It showed people are using more electricity at home after a decline the last few years And it showed that while they’re buying more Energy Star refrigerators, most of the refrigerators sold still are not. And the percentage of those buying Energy Star air conditioners has declined.

“People have been complacent,” the CEQ’s Wagner said, also noting that Energy Star appliances typically cost more up front. And he said, given the lack of progress presented in the report: “Goals that we’ve set for ourselves — those goals might not be met in our lifetime.”