Water Logged

T he seas are calm, and Long Island looks like a mirage at the horizon, where it meets a sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. It’s October, but the sun is still warm, and there’s hardly a chill to the breeze that sails over the small open deck of the Terry Backer II as it motors out of Bridgeport Harbor. A gulp of cormorants sun themselves on a rotting dock off Black Rock as we pass.

Leading this expedition for the environmental organization Long Island Soundkeeper is the soundkeeper himself, Bill Lucey, who plies these waters several times a week. His catch is not bunker or blackfish but rather information, and his job is to be “your ears and eyes on Long Island Sound,” as the website for Save the Sound puts it. The New Haven conservation group, which also has offices in Mamaroneck, New York, has been dedicated to protecting the Sound and the rivers that feed it, as well as mitigating and adapting to a changing climate, for over 40 years. The 30-year-old Long Island Soundkeeper organization became part of Save the Sound in 2017.

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Armed with sidescan and high-frequency sonar, a small camera, a log book and a kayak for getting closer to the source of trouble—a lightbulb changer on a long rod allows him to reach a lab bottle into suspect culverts to collect water samples—Lucey is ready to go. He’s worked as a commercial fisherman, a Peace Corps volunteer, a research biologist, a forest service employee, a bird bander and a manager of invasive species. A Connecticut native, he’s lived in Hawaii and—for 20 years—Alaska. He knows how to talk to fishermen, researchers and regulators alike. “Most people want clean water,” he says, “whether they’re sailors or recreational or commercial harvesters or swimmers or kayakers. Everybody wants clean water.”

Among the soundkeeper’s current projects is documenting every outflow pipe that empties into the Sound from Connecticut and Long Island, a project that’s expected to take about two years. A water reporting app will allow Lucey and his assistants to take a picture of every pipe location and generate a map with GPS coordinates. Save the Sound will then be able to check on permits, run water quality tests and bring attention to violations. The Clean Water Act allows the organization to bring clean water action lawsuits as private citizens.

Lucey is breaking in a brand new motor on his 25-foot Parker work boat on the day of my visit, so once we pass the “no wake” signs at the harbor entrance, we speed along the coastline for a few minutes. He points out the most prominent features along Bridgeport’s industrial coastline: the municipal sewage treatment plant, a coal-fired electricity plant that’s about to be decommissioned and “one of the biggest incinerators in the state,” all constructed beside hundreds of public housing units.

We motor into a channel where Lucey notes a series of oil tanks at water’s edge, built so close to sea level they’ll likely be inundated as waters rise. Old fuel pipes disappear into the water. Here, he’ll watch for “any weird water coming out” or a foul smell that would call for water sampling. This is Johnson’s Creek; at its north end, it’s fed by Bruce Brook, “one of the most contaminated streams in the area as far as bacteria,” Lucey says. At the same time, this inlet is home to “tons of terrapins,” and as we venture farther into a narrow way known as Lewis Gut, Lucey notes that the narrow spit between us and the wide-open water is “one of the most wild stretches left of Long Island Sound.”

Another project on Lucey’s to-do list is the documentation and eventual retrieval of lobster pots abandoned or lost in the water’s depths. On the New York side, Cornell University has been clearing out the pots for a decade. On the Connecticut side, new legislation has just made it possible for Long Island Soundkeeper to work with commercial fishermen to do the same. Cornell estimates there are between 800,000 and 1 million pots to retrieve, Lucey says. They pose several hazards: styrofoam and microplastics from rope and buoys collect toxins and introduce them into the food chain, while at the same time the pots are a hazard to fish and lobsters that get trapped in them, die and “rebait” the pot, creating a vicious cycle and removing millions of dollars from the fishing economy. Retrieved pots are expected to be recycled. As we cruise over some of these hidden hazards, Lucey points out the odd square shape of what is probably a pot on the sidescan sonar.

Lobster pots aren’t the Sound’s biggest pollution problem, though. Sewage is. Cities with old systems that link stormwater and sewage drainage—like New Haven—have a chronic problem. Any time there’s a heavy rain, the system overflows. “Then you get everything that gets flushed down the toilet floating out here,” Lucey says. He’s sympathetic to the fact that upgrading sewage treatment plants comes with an astronomical price tag. When contamination is found, he says, “Typically we just sit down with the town. We say, ‘Hey, you guys have a problem here. What can you do?’” Most towns are receptive but not necessarily able to afford the ideal solution. “If a town doesn’t have the money, we’ll work with them to try to figure it out.” But long-term neglect and an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality isn’t tolerated. “Your sewage treatment collection system, your stormwater system, is just as important as your parks and your schools and everything else,” Lucey says. “Your fire engine needs to be running, and so does your sewage treatment plant.”

A 2020 Long Island Sound report card released by Save the Sound earlier this month graded nearly half of the bay areas it measured as D or lower for dissolved oxygen levels, which can lead to fish kills. Excess seaweed and algae resulting from upstream nitrogen pollution is also of concern, the report says. Bridgeport’s Black Rock Harbor earned an overall score of D. New Haven Harbor wasn’t included in the report because no group was available to do water testing in time to publish the results, Lucey says. Data was collected by 22 partner organizations and municipalities.

There is hope for progress. Water quality out in the Sound itself has been found, over 12 years of data collection, to be improving, due at least in part to upgrades of wastewater treatment plants. And the history of Long Island Soundkeeper itself suggests promise. In the 1980s, Chris Staplefelt and Terry Backer built a coalition of fellow fishermen to fight polluters who had turned the Sound’s once pristine harbors into places “full of dying fish and shellfish, dirty beaches, and waters almost devoid of oxygen,” Save the Sound says. With the help of the organization Hudson Riverkeeper, they sued four Connecticut municipalities for violations of the Clean Water Act. Funds from a settlement with the city of Norwalk established Long Island Soundkeeper, and Backer served as the first soundkeeper for 28 years. Lucey’s boat is named after Backer, who died in 2015.

On our way back in to the Captain’s Cove marina, Lucey notices something he hadn’t on the way out: piles of what appears to be asphalt on a roadway near the water’s edge. “That could be an illegal dump, or it could be maintenance,” he says. Either way, “It’s going to wash right into the water.” He reaches for his camera to document the situation so he can follow up later—all in a day’s work for the soundkeeper.

Long Island Soundkeeper/Save the Sound
900 Chapel St, Suite 2202, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-0646 | info@savethesound.org
Website | Report Pollution

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Bill Lucey in front of the Terry Backer II.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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