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Connecticut could soon have its first National Estuarine Research Reserve

An area that includes Bluff Point, Haley Farm State Park and the University of Connecticut's campus at Avery Point in Groton and spots along the lower Connecticut River, as well as surrounding waters, soon could become Connecticut's first National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The reserve would be a new addition to a nationwide network of estuarine research reserves that provide opportunities for education, research, environmental monitoring and training, said Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant. Estuaries, where fresh water encounters the sea, are important ecologically and provide a habitat that's important to a lot of species, he said.

Connecticut is one of only two coastal states that do not have a nationally recognized estuary.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who has advocated for more funding for the estuarine research reserve system, convened a roundtable on Thursday at UConn Avery Point that included state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and representatives of the City of Groton, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn, Connecticut Sea Grant, Connecticut Audubon Society and Save the Sound to learn more about the proposed reserve as the effort nears the finish line.

The process of working to designate the estuarine reserve started in 2016, though there has been interest since the 1980s and 1990s, said Kevin O'Brien, supervising environmental analyst at DEEP. The effort is a partnership among DEEP, Connecticut Sea Grant, and the University of Connecticut's Marine Sciences department, De Guise said.

O'Brien said the estuarine research reserve designation process is expected to be completed by mid-January.

"By completing this journey, we're going to make ourselves eligible for some pretty significant federal investment," Murphy said.

The purpose of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's estuarine reserves is to protect the estuaries and make them accessible to researchers, as well as to the general public as a place to have fun and learn about the environment, De Guise said. There also is a training component for coastal management, as well as long-term monitoring, such as for water quality.

He said the reserves "acknowledge and value existing human activities" and do not eliminate existing activities, such as fishing.

Jamie Vaudrey, assistant research professor with the Department of Marine Sciences at UConn, said it's important to increase access and education for the general public. For example, visitors to Bluff Point could find informational kiosks and self-guided activities to learn more about the environment.

Connecticut Audubon Executive Director Patrick Comins said the proposed area includes a rich variety of coastal habitats, two different river systems — the Thames and Connecticut rivers — and more than 400 species of conservation concern. The estuary is immeasurably valuable to the economies of Connecticut and New York, including in terms of property values, recreation and seafood. 

"Better understanding how these different habitats are going to be affected by rising sea levels, climate change, invasive species and other threats will allow us to manage the whole Sound better," Comins said.

Virtual public hearings will be held Oct. 7, and the public commenting period will end on Oct. 18. More information is available at bit.ly/ctdeepnerr.

Specifically, the "landward" part of the proposed reserve would include the Bluff Point area, Haley Farm State Park, Pine Island and UConn Avery Point in Groton; Roger Tory Peterson National Area Preserve and DEEP Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme; and Lord Cove National Area Preserve in Lyme and Old Lyme, according to the draft management plan.

The roughly 50,205-acre "subtidal area" would include "Eastern Long Island Sound from approximately Crane Reef and Long Sand Shoal west of the mouth of the Connecticut River, east to Mason’s Island in western Fishers Island Sound, and southward to just north of the Connecticut-New York state boundary line;" the lower Thames River; the lower Connecticut River; and the bays of Baker Cove, Birch Creek, Birch Plain Creek, Poquonnock River, Mumford Cove and Palmer Cove, according to the plan.

The areas near Electric Boat in the Thames River and Millstone Power Station in Waterford, as well as the designated Eastern Long Island Sound disposal site would not be included.

Grant to study 'contaminants of emerging concern'

In addition to the estuarine research reserve, other environmental efforts are in the works.

Connecticut Sea Grant, in partnership with Sea Grant programs in New Hampshire and North Carolina was "awarded an $850,000 federal grant to help unravel the complex problem of contaminants of emerging concern, or CECs, in coastal and freshwater environments," Connecticut Sea Grant announced this week in a news release.

CECs are "residues of products commonly used by people and businesses, including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, household cleaning products, industrial chemicals and plastic microfibers" that are "increasingly found in surface and groundwater, posing risks to drinking water and wildlife," the release states.

"There's a lot of contaminants of emerging concern and by definition we don't know a lot about them," said De Guise, unlike PCBS which have been studied for decades.

He said the purpose is to better understand CECs, such as residues from pharmaceuticals that people may flush down the toilet when expired. He said Sea Grant is trying to understand what the priorities are and what the biggest gaps in knowledge — for example, it could be understanding CECs' transport, why they don't break down and why they are released.

The effort will include holding workshops in several regions of the country, including the Northeast, Southeast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, the West Coast and Hawaii to hear from regulators from state agencies, scientists and stakeholders and see if priorities differ from region to region.

The project will include an environmental justice component. Sea Grant will pay particular attention to how underserved communities — which are often in areas most affected by air pollution and water pollution —  may be particularly affected by contaminants of emerging concern.

k.drelich@theday.com

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