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Impact of Development
Impact of Development
Erosion and Sedimentation
The LI Sound Study
Sewage Treatment

The Problem Is Us

The Long Island Sound that we know today is much different than the one the first settlers knew. The dramatic changes occurring over the years have been relatively gradual ones. It has taken many years for cities to develop, for population to grow, and for technology to advance. A comparison of the time during which this development and growth have occurred, however, with the time that it took for the Sound to form, is alarming. Although it took a few million years for the Sound to form, it has taken only a few hundred years to create conditions that seriously threaten the health of this beautiful estuary.

Land development and the steadily increasing number of people using the land have brought us beyond the ability of natural processes to keep the waters clean. The activities of people impact Long Island Sound in two major ways:

  1. by our use of the land in the watershed and
  2. by the daily flow of our wastes into the Sound.

Consider the changes that occur if a tract of undeveloped land is converted into a shopping mall. Rain falling on undeveloped land is either absorbed in the soil or runs along the ground to a nearby wetland, stream, or other body of water. The absorbed water is taken up by plants or filtered by the soil before it reaches the groundwater. The runoff is slowed and filtered by vegetation and gravel. Before the water reaches streams, rivers, and the Sound it has been significantly purified.

When rain falls on the shopping mall, it hits the paved parking lot, roofs, and cars. With nothing to slow it down, the water then rapidly floods into gutters and storm drains. Along the way it can pick up oil and salt from the roadway, detergents or paint from the cars, and trash and animal waste from the gutters. There is no opportunity for natural processes to clean up this water before it runs into a storm sewer. Everything it picked up from the pavement, roofs, and cars may well wind up in Long Island Sound.

Rainwater, of course, is not the only water leaving the mall. Toilets are flushed, and wastewater is produced by laundromats and restaurants. This water is headed for a septic system or the local sewage treatment plant from which it will be piped into a convenient body of water, maybe a river. Ultimately, this water too will reach the Sound.

All water flows to the Sound

For a moment, imagine Long Island Sound as a basin filled with the seawater that flows in and out with the tide. Next, add the freshwater pouring in from rivers and streams. Then, add the plants and animals that live in an estuary to the picture - they need just the right balance of nutrients and oxygen in the water to survive. Now, consider all the other sources of water that drain into the Sound or into rivers that lead to the Sound:

  • Surface runoff
  • Groundwater seepage
  • Rain directly into the Sound
  • Storm drain flow
  • Sewage treatment plant outflow
  • Combined sewer and storm drain overflow
  • Industrial wastewater

"Sewage" is the water that carries waste away from the toilets, sinks, and drains in our homes, businesses, industries, and other institutions. Sewage enters the "sewer system," which is the complex of pipes and pumps that carries sewage to a sewage treatment plant. There, the water is cleansed before it is returned to the Sound or to a river that flows to the Sound. Pipes that carry only human waste are called “sanitary sewers,” and those that drain the roads are called “storm sewers.”

In some cities, mostly older ones, sewer systems are connected to both sanitary sewers and storm sewers. This type of connection was once considered useful, but it turned out to be a bad idea. Heavy rains often dump more water into the sewer system than it or the sewage treatment plant can handle. The only way out of the problem is release from the plant of an incompletely treated mixture of street runoff and sewage. The result is a combined sewer overflow, or CSO.

The major location of combined sewer systems that impact the Sound is the East River in New York, where there are more than 200 sources of CSOs. In Connecticut, there are 64 CSO sources in Bridgeport and New Haven alone. Some actions and plans to reconstruct combined sewer systems are in place. Connecticut will assist by providing state funds for eliminating combined sewer systems along the coast. But progress in general is slow because eliminating combined sewer systems is costly and disruptive. The results in terms of environmental improvement are large, however.

Water from all the sources listed above can carry pollutants. A "pollutant" is generally understood to be anything in the air, water, or earth that is harmful to life or makes the air, water, or earth unfit for a specific use. Mostly, we think of pollutants as manmade, but that is not always the case. Metals and silt washed from the land and decaying animal or plant waste can also pollute the water.

Pollutants may harm living things by killing them, causing disease, causing genetic changes that produce impaired offspring, or upsetting the balance of a habitat. They may also just be unsightly and spoil the view.

Sources of water pollutants are conveniently classified into two types: point sources and nonpoint sources. Point sources are easy to identify - you can see them. Any pipe or ditch spilling wastewater into the Sound or any river or stream is a point source of pollution.

Nonpoint pollution sources are not so easy to identify or to control. They are, in fact, everywhere. They include contaminated groundwater, overfertilized lawns, and runoff from construction sites, farms, paved surfaces, marinas, and garbage dumps. Stormwater runoff from developed land is a major nonpoint pollution source for the Sound. It can originate anywhere in the watershed and may flow directly to the Sound or to rivers and streams that flow to the Sound. It can carry all types of dissolved or suspended pollutants, including eroded soil. Certain pollutants, for example, heavy metals and nitrogen, enter Long Island Sound mainly in rivers that drain Connecticut and the rest of the mainland watershed.

Your home is a nonpoint pollution source, too. Whatever you spread or spill in your yard, flush into your septic system or dry well, or send to the municipal landfill can reach the Sound via a river or stream, surface runoff, or groundwater seepage.

Soundkeeper, Inc.