Beach report cites progress in cleaning up the Sound

Woodmont Beach in Milford, shown above on Thursday, was named by Save the Sound as one of the ten best in the state this year for water quality.

Woodmont Beach in Milford, shown above on Thursday, was named by Save the Sound as one of the ten best in the state this year for water quality.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — Milford has some of the top beaches on Long Island Sound, including one ranked A+ for water quality, according to the 2021 Long Island Sound Beach Report. The city also is home to one of the few beaches to earn a “D” from the group Save the Sound.

“This great news illustrated in this year’s report is that there are superb swimming beaches across the length and breadth of the Long Island Sound in both New York and Connecticut,” said Tracy Brown, Regional Director of Water Protection for Save the Sound. “But the report also demonstrates that there are challenges still to be overcome involving wet weather-related pollution at specific beaches, the quality of sewer or septic infrastructure in some beach communities, as well as issues of restricted beach access for the general public.”

Save the Sound introduced its annual beach report in dual events at Woodmont Beach and Orchard Beach in the Bronx, New York. The group recognized Woodmont Beach as a Top 20 public beach on Long Island Sound, with the top grades for water quality. Woodmont Beach was one of 10 beaches in Connecticut and 10 in New York make the Top 20 list.

Overall, the report graded 204 swimming beaches in New York and Connecticut over the three-year period ending last summer.

Bill Lucey, Long Island Sound Keeper, said there are several qualities a beach has to have to get a good beach grade.

“You need to have very few or zero failures. By failures, I mean bacteria count that’s over the legal limit,” he said. “If you have clean water and it’s not contaminated, you can get an “A” plus like the beach here (Woodmont).”

Mayor Ben Blake noted that Milford has the longest coastline in Connecticut, listing it as the city’s #2 attribute.

“Other than our people, the shoreline is the community’s greatest natural asset,” Blake said. “It’s all our responsibility to ensure that each beautiful beach remains clean, safe and fun.”

On the whole, the beaches on Long Island Sound did fairly well. The report gave 79 percent of them an A or B grade, which still leaves 16 percent of Sound beaches with moderate to poor grades ranging from “C” to “D,” indicating that more work needs to be done to improve water quality and avoid beach closures.

The remaining beaches either did not monitor water quality enough to record a grade or did not report their findings to the EPA.

Water quality can vary greatly due to local conditions. Anchor Beach, also in Milford, received a “D” due for its water quality.

“Right up the road, Anchor Beach received a D this year, and there were only four Ds given out in all of Long Island Sound, both in New York and Connecticut,” Lucey said.

Beaches are graded on wet weather and dry weather, Lucey said. Wet weather failure is when the area gets a big rainstorm and it washes feces and other contaminants into the water, or the stormwater mixes with sewage, and the wastewater treatment plant can’t handle it. Dry weather failures are usually infrastructure failures, meaning there’s a pipe with sewage in it traveling to the waste plant, and it leaks, sending raw sewage into a storm drain and directly into Long Island Sound.

“Those are the ones you typically get a very high bacteria limit. They are in the thousands. Way over the limit,” Lucey said. “What we do in that situation is we contact the local authority, including public works, and I try to work with them to fix it.”

About 5.5 percent of beaches fail water quality tests in dry weather, and about 11.4 percent in wet weather. Anchor Beach was flagged for both wet and dry weather quality, Lucey said.

According to the report, climate change will mean more rain for the region. Therefore it is crucial to invest in stormwater and sewage infrastructure to avoid dramatically accelerated beach closures.

“Climate change is increasing drought periods, but it’s also increasing the intensity of the rainfall,” Lucey said. “What happens is it overwhelms our existing infrastructure, our stormwater infrastructure. So what the towns need to do is start designing all their roadways, housing, buildings and parking lots to catch stormwater onsite.”

By capturing stormwater, the water can seep into the ground and trickle down into the groundwater, then out into the streams and, ultimately, into the Sound. The ground acts as a filter, Lucey said.

“That way, it removes all the plastic bits, gasoline, tire crumbs and all the pollution,” he said.

The other beaches in Connecticut that ranked in the Top 20 were Waterford Town Beach, Dubois Beach in Stonington, Westbrook Town Beach, Esker Point Beach in Groton, McCook Point Beach in East Lyme, Eastern Point Beach in Groton, Quigley Beach in Stamford, White Sands Beach in Old Lyme and Burying Hill Beach in Westport.

New York beaches on the list were primarily from the northern shore of Long Island. Orchard Beach is the only New York beach to make the Top 20 list that is not located in Nassau or Suffold counties.

Lucey said the geography of Long Island Sound, along with population patterns, explained the discrepancy.

“Long Island Sound is connected to the open ocean, and that’s a flushing mechanism, so it’s a good exchange of clean ocean water,” Lucey said. “As you go towards the western end of the Sound, it bottlenecks, and there’s less flushing. Because of that, many nutrients swirl around and don’t get a chance to clear out with fresh water at the same rate they do on the eastern Sound. There are also more people there. It’s a much more densely populated area and the landscape is covered with more cement and pavement and those are all problems for water quality.”

A silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it reduced traffic on the roads, which in turn reduced pollution from vehicle exhaust, oil and gasoline. The number of people at beaches also increased as people looked for outdoor recreational opportunities.

“So more people were enjoying Long Island Sound, which is a good thing, and we encourage that. But with more people enjoying Long Island Sound, they want to know the fish they are catching is clean,” he said. “They want to know the water their kid is swimming in is not full of sewage.”

Overall, Save the Sound reported that Long Island Sound is trending in a positive direction and is in general much cleaner than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, Lucey said.

The progress can be attributed in part to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and a state program called the Clean Water Fund, which helps fund sewer and stormwater collection upgrades, Lucey said.

Connecticut has spent billions of dollars in the past 20 years implementing those improvements, and the investment is paying off in cleaner water, according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. But the work is far from over, he said.

“Significantly more federal dollars are required to ensure that the Sound remains a vibrant, clean and healthy place for all to enjoy,” he said. “Investments to confront climate change and rising sea levels, upgrade wastewater treatment facilities and reduce runoff from pesticides and fertilizers are even more crucial to protect and grow ecotourism that is such a vital part of our region’s economy. I am committed to fighting for every possible dollar to fund this loved natural treasure.”