Apr 19, 2013
07:45 PM
The Connecticut Story

12 Environmental Issues Facing Connecticut

12 Environmental Issues Facing Connecticut

As Connecticut prepares to celebrate Earth Day, here are a few areas and issues on which environmental organizations across the state are focused.

1. Energy and environment - In 2011, the state departments of environmental protection and public utility control were merged into the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection [DEEP], a move that is "a big plus," according to Dennis Schain, DEEP's communications director. "These issues are two sides of the same coin," he says, pointing out how we use energy has a major impact on the environment, whether it's burning fuels or reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

By consolidating these two areas together into one agency, it has allowed the state to pursue a more aggressive agenda on energy policy, especially in terms of looking at issues such as energy efficiency, infrastructure and alternative power programs.

2. The Connecticut shoreline - In the wake of two especially destructive hurricanes in the past two years, not only is there a concern about dealing with ongoing climate change and rising sea levels, but the bigger question of how do you make the shoreline more resilient?

"You can't just build a big wall to hold the water back," says Schain, who adds that the DEEP is very concerned about protecting infrastructure and private property while at the same time respecting the environment. The state legislature established the Shoreline Preservation Task Force in 2012, which recently released a report in which in made a number of recommendations. Among them: streamlining the permit process for seawalls; making municipalities consider sea level and climate change adaptation in conservation and development plans; updating building codes; providing low-interest loans to help property owners improve resiliency; increasing public awareness of flood zones; and providing better transparency of flood insurance policies.

Of course, these are only recommendations—the challenge is finding political support as well as funding for each initiative.

3. The low-oxygen dead zone in Long Island Sound - Last summer, low levels of oxygen were recorded in the western end of Lond Island Sound, stretching from Greenwich to New York City and creating what was termed as a "dead zone." "Creatures had to come up for air or get out of there," says Curt Johnson, director or Save the Sound, which is in partnership with Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

According to Johnson, the issue is primarily caused by the run off of nutrients that are used to fertilize our lawns—the same nitrogen that makes grass greens is washed into the Sound after storms and helps single-celled algae grow in abundance, which eventually die and essentially choke off the water.

The good news is that the Clean Water Act that was passed a few years ago and was aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution in both New York and Connecticut by setting goals for each state has been effective in reducing nitrogen by 58 percent. Connecticut is very close to its target goals, says Johnson, which is important in making sure that the dead zone doesn't get bigger. "It really affects all living creatures in the Sound from New York to New Haven," he says.

4. Protecting and supporting state parks and forests - This year is the centennial celebration of Connecticut's state parks and forests, and according to Eric Hammerling, executive director of Connecticut Forest & Park Association, funding and support for the parks is at an all-time low. Currently, there are only year-round 74 field staff to maintain the state's 107 state parks and 32 forests, and 15 of those are eligible for retirement come this July. Even though the state adds seasonal workers, "That's a slim work force," says Hammerling, considering that annually the parks and forests see an average of over 4 million visitors.

Hammerling also points out that a recent study by the University of Connecticut showed that the overall economic impact of the state parks and forests is conservatively about $1 billion annually. Over 9,000 jobs also depend on these resources, making it critical that investments continue to be made.

5. Waste management - As long as we continue to be consumers, what we do with our garbage will always be a major concern. Connecticut has been a leader in terms of moving away from landfills, which raise concerns about contaminating ground water and other harmful consequences, and toward more environmentally friendly trash-to-energy programs. Currently, 60 percent of waste in Connecticut is burned at trash-to-energy plants.

According to DEEP, between 25 and 30 percent of trash is being recycled by Connecticut towns, and more municipalities have been switching to expanded recycling programs that allow the reclaimation of more waste. Still, 27 percent of most trash is organic material that can be recycled.

In recent years, many towns have been successful in "e-waste" programs, where old everyday electronic items (TVs, computers, etc.) are recycled, The DEEP's Schain says that the state is also working to set up programs that would allow for the recycling of items such as unused paint and mattresses, and is looking to increase "producer responsibility," where manufacturers share in recycling costs of their products.

6. Keeping beaches safe for swimming year round - According to Johnson of Save the Sound, who cited a "Testing the Waters" report from the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2012, Connecticut experience the equivalent of over 200 days of beach closures due to bacteria or sewage contamination.

Johnson points out that as Connecticut's infrastructure ages, sewage pipes in many towns break down and start to leak; then, whenever a storm occurs, rain water flushes sewage and other contaminants into Long Island Sound. "If you combine Bridgeport and New Haven harbors, each year [this contamination] is equal to 11 Exxon Valdez tankers discharging their loads into the Sound," he says.

Fortunately, many municipalities are working to upgrade the plumbing under the streets to prevent leaks. Johnson also says that the governor and the DEEP deserve credit for trying to increase funding to historic highs to improve local sewer systems.

7. Clean up of contaminated land - Currently, Connecticut has hundreds of sites that are considered contaminated, partly the result of being a manufacturing hub for centuries. Cleaning up and rehabilitating these properties, as well as getting them back to productive use and on the public tax roll, remains a priority for the DEEP. In addtion to environmental issues, these unused properites also pose potential health risks.

"We like to say, 'Use brown fields, not green fields,'" says Schain, adding that considering how much we want to protect our open fields and forests, it makes no sense to develop those when there's so much available former industrial space just sitting around waiting to be redeveloped.

8. Raising awareness of the environment - As we increasingly become more focused on our electronic gadgets, video games and other activities that seem to keep us indoors, there's "a growing disconnect between us and the land," says Adam Whelchel, Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut Chapter. "We've lost our day-to-day connection. Yes, there's beauty, but without awareness of our environment, we don't understand or care where our food comes from, or other products or jobs that rely on it." He also points out that critical role that the environment plays in our lives in terms of providing natural resources, removing certain pollutants out of life and providing protection from the elements.

"Also, as the population in Connecticut continues to increase, it puts more stress on our rivers and lakes, our forests and farms, all of which we will need to sustain that population," he says. "Being aware of these benefits—often which are usuallly provided for free—is important." Reminding people that we don't live in a vacuum is vital to making sure that these benefits are available for future generations.

9. Funding for land conservation - As Connecticut's interest in land preservation and a more "green" lifestyle increases unabated, investments need to be made to help keep these initiatives going. In his current budget, Gov. Dannel Malloy is proposing $10 million to be allocated for agricultural land and another $10 million to preserve open space as part of funding the Community Investment Act, originally passed in 2005, at full levels. The goal is to have 21 percent of state land protected by 2023; according to the DEEP, Connecticut is about 75 percent of the way there.

Still, at a time when the state government and local municipalities are scraping for every cent, setting money aside to protect these spaces is an ongoing challenge. Land trusts,

10. Dam removal - Prior to the 20th century, much of Connecticut's power was generated via dams harnessing the power of water, be it to turn mill wheels or factory  turbines. Modern power sources have all but eliminated this need, yet thousands of dams still stand, serving no other purpose than blocking our rivers and waterways.

With the growing frequency of "super" storms, these old dams also pose a safety theat—if one gives way during a big storm, it can cause flooding and other damage to homes and businesses.

The Nature Conservancy has been able to remove many of old dams, which in addition to opening up waterways helps migratory fish reconnect to areas that they used populate. "It's a win-win for all around," says Whelchel of the Nature Conservancy, who points to recent removal successes along the 8-Mile River in Salem and the Saugatuck River in Weston and Westport. "It also corrects the past and rids us of the legacy of environmental irresponsibility."

11. The emerald ash borer - Not exactly at a crisis stage yet, but according to the DEEP, the emerald ash borer has been found in Connecticut's forests. An invasive species—it was first discovered in North America in Michigan in 2002—this beetle feeds exclusively on ash trees, which make up about 3 percent of Connecticut's forests; larvae feed on the inner bark while adult borers feed on ash leaves.

As with any invasive species, native flora and fauna haven't had a chance to build an immunity or defense to the threat, thus the emerald ash borer, which reproduces and spreads at a high rate, can do a tremendous amount of damage in a very short amount of time.

Currently, the DEEP is trying to control the spread of the insect, which so far has been concentrated in the Waterbury region of the state. Ash from the area has been quarantined and hopes are that natural solutions—such as a predator that feeds on the borer will emerge or that the local ash trees will develop a tolerance.

12. The return of cicadas - Although not a threat as much as annoyance, the next generation of cicadas are about to emerge and fill the skies. As part of their 17-year life cycle, cicadas that are part of the Magicicada brood, will come out of the ground in which they've been living in search of a mate. Part of the mating ritual includes the distinctive call of the cicada, which Connecticut residents may very quickly tire of hearing if the population is as large as scientists expect.

Other than tolerating the loud mating song and possibly finding hundreds of dead cicadas—they die soon after mating and laying eggs—the red-eyed, black-bodied winged insect poses no threat to humans. They can do some damage to trees, but that mainly occurs when they are underground and feeding on roots. By the time they emerge, they're mainly focused on breeding.

Cicadas have many natural predators, from fish and snakes to squirrels and birds, so don't expect the impending nuisance to last too long.

12 Environmental Issues Facing Connecticut

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