Bill Lucey has come full circle, and that’s good news for those of us who care about the health and future of Long Island Sound.
Lucey, who spent his boyhood fishing on the Sound, digging for clams and roaming its beaches around his hometown of Wilton, has returned to Connecticut to be the new Long Island Soundkeeper.
Two years after the death of Terry Backer, who became the first Soundkeeper in 1987, Lucey is being introduced as “the new sheriff” patrolling the Sound. Save the Sound/Connecticut Fund for the Environment leaders this past summer reinstituted the Soundkeeper position, a kind of ambassador for the body of water.
Lucey was eager to move back to Connecticut, which he left 30 years ago. At that time he was discouraged by what he recalls as the “bad” state of the Sound.
He says it’s “my responsibility to come back” and join citizens’ ongoing efforts that have steadily improved this unique estuary.
During a talk at the New Haven Museum as part of that institution’s expanding community programming, Lucey wore a T-shirt with a message on the back: “Clean Water Guardian.”
Lucey often compares the Sound’s water quality to that of other bodies of water in the much less-densely populated areas where he lived over the past three decades. After spending some time in Vermont, he went to Guatemala for the Peace Corps, then it was on to Hawaii, where he helped write and pass an invasive species bill. He also lived and fished in Alaska.
He was amazed by how clean the water was in that “last frontier” state. “In Alaska I would eat 5-10 pounds of seafood a week!” he recalls. “Salmon, crabs, shrimp, mussels — it was all clean.”
“Here in Connecticut, we have some work to do,” he says. “I eat fish out of the Sound, whether I should or not. This should be something we all can do without worrying about how clean the fish is. In 2017 we shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
Asked to describe the lobster situation in the Sound, Lucey says: “Terrible. There are very few now. Only a few guys are out there fishing for lobster.”
He notes the standard theory for what befell the lobsters is the Sound’s water simply got too warm. Lucey lists other theories such as the water becoming more acidic and carbon dioxide emissions from cars affecting water quality.
And yet Lucey is generally upbeat about the Sound’s progress, especially compared with its state during the 1980s. “Things got turned around. We are definitely pushing back from the brink.”
Lucey often carries with him the Long Island Sound 2016 “report card” done by Save the Sound. It states: “The primary pollutant that threatens the current and future health of the Sound is excess nutrients, particularly nitrogen, entering the water from our wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, fossil fuel burning and fertilizer use. High nitrogen loads can overfertilize coastal water, causing the growth of excess seaweed and phytoplankton.”
But the “report card” adds that, over the past decade, communities around the Sound have made substantial investments that improved wastewater plants. Dissolved oxygen levels have generally gotten better. In addition, Lucey cites an achieved target for nitrogen reduction, established in 1992, with the goal of reducing total maximum daily loads of nitrogen into the Sound by 58.5 percent. Last year, after the upgrading of more than 100 sewage treatment plants in Connecticut and New York, this goal was reached. “That’s a good-news story,” Lucey says.
Another sign of progress: Lucey notes occasional sightings of humpback whales. But we shouldn’t think we can relax in monitoring our Sound. “Sewage pollution closes beaches,” Lucey points out. “It happens all the time, though it’s not as bad as in the ’90s.”
He lists his group’s three goals: “Reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound; eliminate fecal contamination; engage people as citizen activists.”
How can people help? Lucey shows the audience at the New Haven Museum a photo of a brilliantly green lawn next to a storm drain that leads to the Sound. “Don’t throw nitrogen fertilizer on your yard,” he tells us, noting organic fertilizers are available. Chemical fertilizers run off lawns quickly during rainstorms and into those drains.
“There’s no need to fertilize a lawn,” Lucey says. “Maybe if you’ve got a golf course…”
He notes pesticides also should be kept off lawns.
During the fall, Lucey advises homeowners to mulch their leaves in place on lawns rather than raking and removing them. This returns the nutrients in the leaves back to the soil. If you remove the leaves, you lose those nutrients to feed your lawn and you might be tempted to instead use fertilizers.
Save the Sound recommends that property owners “go native,” placing natural vegetation and forested buffers — not a lawn — alongside a stream, ditch or waterfront, to help filter out pollutants.
During his patrols, Lucey focuses on finding, reporting and fixing water-quality problems. He urges the rest of us to do the same, either on the Sound itself or in waterways flowing into it. You can report a problem by calling 203-854-5330 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now that he’s back in Connecticut, Lucey is enjoying his freedom to relive his childhood experiences along the Sound with his 4-year-old son, Henry.
“We catch snappers and blues or just go beachcombing. Henry loves chasing fiddler crabs.”