Bad news at the beach: Pollution is up in state, nation

Not the kind of news you really want to hear going into one of the biggest beach weekends of the summer: The water at Connecticut’s ocean beaches was a lot more polluted last year than it’s been in awhile.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s annual report on the nation’s marine beaches showed there were 143 beach closings among Connecticut’s 66 public beaches along Long Island Sound, an increase of 32 percent from the 108 days they were closed in 2009.

What makes it worse, said Leah Schmalz of Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, was that the whole nation had a lousy summer at the beach: On average, closings were up 29 percent.

Most of Connecticut’s closings (66 percent) were the result of stormwater runoff – and in particular, in a summer that was otherwise very hot and dry – one brutally rainy week in August that accounted for about one-third of the closings.

While disappointed, Schmalz said the state has been headed in the right direction in terms of providing funds to address runoff issues.

For fiscal year 2012, the legislature authorized $92.6 million in grants and $233.4 million in low interest loans for the Clean Water Fund, which is the primary way to finance runoff projects. For 2013, it approved $94 million in grants and $238.4 million in low interest loans. Each of those years is about twice the level of loan money approved in 2011 and six times the 2011 grant level.

“We’ve just started to reinvest in pipes for pollution control,” Schmalz said. “But the money hasn’t been able to show a difference yet.”

As if that wasn’t enough bad news, the report also showed 11 percent of the beach monitoring samples exceeded state standards, pushing Connecticut from 12th among the 30 states monitored down to 24th.

Two New London County beaches had the worst records: Kiddie’s Beach, where 54 percent of weekly samples exceeded state standards, and Green Harbor Beach, with 45 percent exceedance. Kiddie’s Beach has been closed for the season, the Natural Resources Defense Council says. New London County overall had the worst record.

Schmalz said aside from getting the many financed pollution control projects built and online, the state needs to get moving on green infrastructure projects as a way to reduce what’s known as “non-point source” pollution like the fertilizer and pesticide that runs off people’s yards. And she said the reauthorization of the Long Island Sound Restoration Act, which failed last year, would also be an important step.

“Then we won’t have to cross our fingers and do a little dance and hope Mother Nature doesn’t dump a lot of rain on us,” she said.