Long Island Sound legislation stalled by Washington politics

Charlie Yarish knows exactly what it will take to get the technique he developed to clean the waters of Long Island Sound up and running.

"Additional funds," he said. "That's the bottom line."

But as Yarish, an ecology and marine sciences professor at the University of Connecticut, is learning, money in this time of tight finances, delayed federal budgets and, often, antipathy toward environmental issues is diminished at best and unavailable at worst.

For dozens of projects whose aim is cleaner water for Long Island Sound, as well as the land around it, that means waiting while two key pieces of federal legislation remain caught in the uncertainties of Washington's political battles.

One is the now combined Long Island Sound Restoration and Long Island Sound Stewardship Acts -- both overdue on their reauthorizations. The other is the appropriation for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund -- which provides some of the money for municipal wastewater, sewage and other infrastructure projects to help the state meet federal requirements for cleaning the Sound.

Complicating the politics of both is that most of their funding funnels through the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is a frequent target of cuts, if not wholesale elimination, by most of those seeking the Republican presidential nomination as well as a hefty chunk of Republicans in Congress.

"We're fighting for appropriations in a very tough climate," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in a pre-Thanksgiving conference call on a day in which nearly a dozen-and-a-half environmental advocates from Connecticut and New York had fanned out on Capitol Hill spreading the word of their Long Island Sound cause.

"If you want an example where government really did something very significant at relatively low cost, this is it," Lieberman said. "It's not only a shame, but dumb, not to invest."

But even if both pieces of legislation start moving down the congressional pipeline, their funding seems to be settling at levels far less than either the state's delegation or the Sound's advocates would like.

The Long Island Sound Restoration Act, which generally covers water concerns, has been without authorization since Sept. 30, 2010. Authorization for the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act, which handles land issues, lapsed Sept. 30, 2011.

The combined reauthorization lays out priorities and suggested funding. The money for the Long Island Sound Program that finances it comes through appropriations for the EPA and is administered through its office, the Long Island Sound Study. With leveraging, the program has funded hundreds of projects, including beach cleanups, restoration projects, land stewardship and as much as $2 million annually for state projects, including about $775,000 for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's 20-year ongoing water quality monitoring program.

Funding keeps dropping

Since fiscal 2010, funding for the Long Island Sound Program has decreased from $7 million to $5.3 million. For the current fiscal year, which has been running on continuing resolutions since it began Oct. 1, President Obama and House Republicans actually agree on a $2.962 million funding level -- a 44 percent cut. The Senate prefers something closer to $3.7 million.

Funding prospects are equally grim for the Revolving Fund, established in 1987 under the Clean Water Act. In fiscal 2010, the state received nearly $25 million and in fiscal 2011, more than $18 million.

That money was paired with state funds, which increased significantly in Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget ($658 million over two years, though it has not yet been approved by the Bond Commission). The state funds are to help cities and towns upgrade sewage and wastewater facilities to reduce nitrogen levels in the Sound. The state has been under federal mandate to reduce nitrogen discharges into the Sound to a prescribed level by 2014.

But while Obama has recommended a slight increase, from $1.52 billion to $1.55 billion, and the Senate recommended level-funding, the Republican-controlled House slashed funding to $689 million.

Few think, even with full funding, that the state will meet its 2014 requirement, and missing it could mean significant fines for out-of-compliance communities. Despite that, it's the authorizations that are more worrisome to advocates.

In past years, lack of authorization posed little concern, and programs were regularly funded without it. But in the current fiscal climate, advocates worry that no authorization could turn into a congressional license to kill.

"Reauthorization is the sole place for a lot of these projects," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Schmalz noted that even if the Revolving Fund is cut, the state still contributes.

"The worry that we have if reauthorization doesn't take place is that it definitely shows a lack of interest to the people doing the appropriating."

Schmalz also pointed out that there is new language in the authorization that does things like require studies on the effects of sea level rise and marine spatial planning -- how to designate use areas for sometimes competing interests on and in the water.

The authorization also requires a pilot project on Yarish's cleansing technique, called nutrient bioextraction. It uses seaweed and shellfish to essentially sop up excess nitrogen.

Yarish ran a small study this summer using about $100,000 from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund, one of the main funding programs paid for with federal money from the Long Island Sound Study. But to turn it into an operation that would actually make a dent in the problem, Yarish says would take about $1 million. And, he pointed out, with potential byproducts from the nitrogen-soaked seaweed -- such as animal feed, fish feed and even biofuels, plus the jobs they can create -- it's a win-win-win.

"This is all part of the exciting thing of taking a problem and finding the solution," he said. "And along the way it's having economic value that is eventually turning into jobs."

'A zero sum game'

Mark Tedesco, director of the EPA's Long Island Sound Study office, said the Future's Fund has at least twice as many proposals as it can handle.

And the state has about 30 projects worth $15 million ready or nearly ready to go, said Betsey Wingfield, chief of DEEP's Water Protection and Land Reuse Bureau.

Sandy Breslin, director of governmental affairs for Audubon Connecticut, and a participant in the one-day lobbying last month, said what confounds her is a lack of realization that the authorizations and the Revolving Fund are not only linked by their goal to clean the Sound, but that they are also economic drivers.

"What we saw this summer was a wholesale attack on the EPA," she said referring to debate in the House during which the Revolving Fund became a prime target. "What's really concerning to us in the environmental community is the belief that environmental regulations are a bedrock cause of our economic problems."

It's the opposite, she said. Environmental projects create immediate jobs that have a multiplier effect of more jobs. All of this improves the economy.

"Pitting the environment against the economy is a zero sum game," she said. "The loser in that will be the people of Connecticut and the nation."