New Long Island Sound plan advocates public involvement

NEW HAVEN — The last time a comprehensive conservation and management plan was created for Long Island Sound was 1994. The estuary was severely stressed from pollution, toxins, garbage, poorly regulated development and general neglect.

But the phrase “climate change” had yet to enter the public lexicon, the concept of sea level rise was barely a blip, lobsters were plentiful in advance of a calamitous die-off, the Sound had not yet become a target for energy pipelines and projects and the economy was poised to soar before its current plunge.

With today’s release of Sound Vision— the first comprehensive review and agenda since 1994–changes that have resulted from those factors are now being considered. But perhaps most important, the realization that public involvement may be key to the future of Long Island Sound has moved to the forefront of recommendations.

“We constantly tell [people] that Long Island Sound is not doing as great as it should be,” said Leah Lopez Schmalz of Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.  “But what are they supposed to do about that?”

The report was nearly two years in the making by the citizens advisory committee of the Environmental Protection Agency-financed and coordinated Long Island Sound Study. It includes a two-year Citizen Action Agenda, two dozen generalized points distilled from many dozens of short, intermediate and long-range goals in the larger report–a 10-year blueprint, though with no specific policy or legislative recommendations yet.

The points are grouped in four categories roughly corresponding to cleaning the water, creating and preserving wildlife habitat, re-inventing shoreline communities and businesses related to the Sound, and securing funding for projects.

Underlying all of it is citizen engagement. The three dozen members of the committee–environmental advocacy, business, scientific and other interested organizations from Connecticut and New York — discovered through focus groups that people’s relationships with the Sound has eroded due to a literal inability to get to it and a failure to integrate programs related to it across broad spectrums of business, community and government.

“I’ve always known that public access wasn’t the best. It’s not California, you can’t get to any beach you want to,” Schmalz said. “But I didn’t really realize how significant that issue is.”

From the land, public access often doesn’t exist where it can and isn’t marked where it does. Urban access is even more problematic, especially for minority populations who often live near areas unfit for use.

From the water, silt buildup threatens to lock in small recreational harbors and marinas. Without dredging, there’s potential for a negative economic impact, but the cost to dredge is often too high for cash-strapped communities or private organizations.

Schmalz and others said if people can’t physically connect to the Sound, asking them to do things like not put pesticides or fertilizer on their lawn so they won’t wash pollution into the Sound, simply won’t resonate.

“Giving them those access opportunities and making them feel like they are part of the Sound community is really critical in getting them to do attitude and lifestyle changes,” she said.

Joe McGee, vice president for public policies for the Business Council of Fairfield County, one of the organizations represented on the Sound Vision committee, said his group pushed for action after noticing that Long Island Sound had dropped off the list of priorities for businesses in his area.

He believes the reason is that same lack of public engagement and lays some of the blame on the very organizations that advocate for the Sound, citing competition among them for status related to their fundraising needs. But he, like others, said in the end, the groups came together in a unified, message that dovetails their goals which he thought would help bring businesses and the people to work in them to the state.

“Long Island Sound is such a treasure; it’s a major piece of what makes Connecticut, Connecticut,” he said. “To attract young people, the environmental stewardship component is very important. We have to show that this place isn’t a junkyard.

“Part of the branding of the state of Connecticut has got to have the issue of environment and Long Island Sound.”

Despite the emphasis on public involvement, many of the practical issues that bubbled up as the top recommendations in Sound Vision, and the ones that are likely to find their ways into legislative priorities, are the same ones that have been around for years–mainly related to cleaning the water, even though the Sound is considerably cleaner than it was when the 1994 management plan came out.

One of the biggest success stories is the money spent on upgrading sewage treatment plants. The report’s authors traced the sources and uses of money over the years, discovering that the vast majority came from the state of Connecticut.

Even so, hypoxia, a lack of oxygen thought to be in part responsible for some fish and shellfish die-offs, remains a frustrating problem. It has somewhat stabilized–good news in the global scheme of things since hypoxia generally is increasing worldwide. But the more scientists study it, the more they’ve realized that just getting rid of nitrogen in sewage was not the solution.

“If there was one mistake made, it might have been that we portrayed early on if do this one thing it will get back to how it should be,” said Prof. Carmela Cuomo, head of the marine biology department at the University of New Haven and co-chair of the Sound Study’s scientific and technical advisory committee.

“It’s not that simple.”

Nitrogen she said may also be coming from trapped sediment in the western Sound or even the atmosphere and hypoxia may have other sources. Her group is completing updated scientific findings.

The Sound is clearly shifting as its waters warm–likely from climate change, Cuomo said – bringing with it fewer cold water inhabitants like lobsters and winter flounder and more warm water species like blue crab. But it is not dead, she said.

“It annoys me when it’s portrayed that way,” she said also underscoring its economic importance generating $9 billion annually for the region it borders. “But it cannot be an economic driver if we don’t look at it in a sustainable way.”

To make that happen, Schmalz suspects her group will focus on policies and legislation that continue funding for more sewage treatment upgrades, though the Malloy administration has already increased that dramatically over where it had been.

Another likely focus will be marine coastal spatial planning–literally mapping its layers of uses from the sea floor to the water surface to figure out where the intersecting interests are and how to potentially realign them to insure sustainability, the best economic model and environmental protection. Another may be a push for green infrastructure in cities and towns that feed into the Sound and its watershed. It could potentially insist on things like capturing and reusing storm runoff instead of letting it wash away. And there could be a push to enforce public access laws to begin the process of heightening public interest in the Sound.

For Grant Westerson, president of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association with about 300 members among the 550 recreational boating businesses and their 10,000 employees in Connecticut, who also helped write the report, that public access component is paramount for the survival of the waterfront businesses he represents

“Our concern has always been that part of the waterfront just doesn’t disappear from public use. It’s nice to have areas preserved, but you can take that to an extreme,” he said adding that he thought the report fairly balanced those two points of view.

But realistically he said: “It’s an exercises in wishes at this stage. The money isn’t there to do anything. Trying to bring this to the public’s attention is probably the biggest chance we have at success.”