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Save the Sound ‘report card’ grades the North Shore’s bays

Hempstead Harbor, Oyster Bay can improve

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Representatives of the Long Island Sound environmental action group Save the Sound joined elected officials and other environmental activists at a news conference in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park in Oyster Bay on Oct. 6 to share Save the Sound’s “report card” on the health of the sound’s many bays. The organization publishes its assessment of the sound’s ecological health every two years, but this year’s was the first to focus on the bays.

Tracy Brown, Save the Sound’s regional director of water pollution and protection, said the sound is one of North America’s most heavily populated and biologically diverse estuaries. It is a critical nursery for marine life up and down the Eastern Seaboard, she said, and it also generates nearly $17 billion in income every year.

“The Long Island Sound is our national park,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi. “This is an amazing, extraordinary national treasure that we’ve got right in our backyards.”

Brown said that 23 groups of researchers ventured out into the sound on boats every two weeks from May through October. They sampled the water in each of its 38 bays — in New York City, Westchester County and Connecticut and on Long Island — and brought them back to a lab to be tested.

Suozzi said he was unhappy with the grades for Hempstead Harbor — D and C+ for its middle and outer sections, respectively. One of the major reasons for the area’s relatively high pollution rates, he said, is the harbor’s proximity to New York City. Wastewater and storm water runoff from the city, Suozzi said, raise the level of nitrogen in the water, which can harm underwater ecosystems.

According to the report card, the farther a bay is from the city, the cleaner it is.

Suozzi has secured $21 million in congressional funding for the sound since he took office, he said, and is looking to increase that total.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran said that officials needed to come up with an infrastructure plan, starting at the federal level and continuing at the state level, to limit nitrogen pollution, including improved sewage treatment methods.

Jamie Vaudrey, a University of Connecticut professor who has worked with Save the Sound throughout the testing process, explained that five indicators were used to measure water quality: dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a, water clarity, seaweeds and oxygen saturation see box. Both areas of Hempstead Harbor had positive water clarity ratings, average ratings for oxygen saturation and seaweeds, and poor ratings for dissolved oxygen. Oyster Bay rated highest in oxygen saturation and water clarity, less so in seaweeds and dissolved oxygen levels, and poorly in chlorophyll a.

Vaudrey said that humans have played a large role in the degradation of the sound’s waters, but with an increased focus on infrastructure and limiting pollution, the bays could return to their former glory. “We know that if we commit ourselves and our resources and effort,” she said, “we can once again achieve health conditions throughout the sound and its bays, but it will require vigilance, persistence and patience.”

Updating wastewater infrastructure, Brown said, is one of the most important things that can be done to preserve the health of the bays. She added that building buffers on stream and creek beds could help reduce pollution from storm water runoff on land that makes its way to the sound. These calls for action are at the heart of the report card effort, Brown said.

Carol DiPaolo, program director and water monitoring coordinator for the Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor, said that those who protect the harbor have made great progress in improving its health over the past 30 years — for instance, increasing the size of the area that is safe for shellfishing. But she acknowledged that there are still issues that need to be addressed, and the coalition is doing what it can to work toward a healthier harbor.

Vaudrey said that New York City has shown that it is dedicated to reducing its pollution of the sound, as its officials are taking part in a modeling effort to determine the best way to manage the city’s wastewater. While it will take time for the sound to return to its optimal level of health, she said, she is confident in the work being done by officials and environmental organizations.

Bill Bleyer, board president of the Oyster Bay-based environmental conservation group Friends of the Bay, said that Save the Sound’s grades for Oyster Bay, Mill Neck Creek and Cold Spring Harbor were about what he expected, and that his organization is trying to improve them. The health of the bays is of crucial importance to the North Shore, he said,  because life in the region depends on them so heavily.

Friends of the Bay, he added, is working with the Town of Oyster Bay and the Village of Bayville on a project near the Bayville drawbridge that would restore wetlands that have been declining in recent years. Wetlands are known to increase water quality in enclosed bay areas, Bleyer said, in part because they provide habitat for marine wildlife.