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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Water experts: Future of watersheds in local hands

    Mystic — Surrounded by tanks of tropical fish Wednesday, University of Connecticut marine sciences researcher Jamie Vaudrey showed the audience a photo of a dark green algae that coats the deep water in Narragansett Bay.

    "Algae is an indication that something is going wrong in the system," Vaudrey said at a panel discussion featuring water quality experts at the Mystic Aquarium.  

    Below that algae lives an even more dramatic indication that the Pawcatuck River watershed is being polluted, Vaudrey, who studies the effects that human land use has on coastal waters, said Wednesday.

    "Literally, you go down there, and it grades down into this lovely black, mayonnaise-like mud," she said.

    Water flowing over fertilized lawns and out of septic systems into the Long Island Sound is causing dangerously high levels of nitrogen in the water in embayments all along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts, Vaudrey said.

    "The amount of nitrogen and phosphorus coming into these systems is just way out of whack," she said.

    The future of local watersheds is in the hands of residents and local municipalities, the panel's speakers said.

    "No matter where you live, we all live in a watershed," said David Prescott, a coast-keeper for Save the Bay.

    People interested in the health of their water can hold back on fertilizing their lawns, stop feeding geese and swans whose waste adds nitrogen to the water, and talk to local officials about redirecting wastewater back into the ground instead of letting it into the rivers and bays, he said.

    "Little Narragansett Bay is a valuable resource," Prescott said. "It's on all of us to be good stewards and protect it for generations to come."

    Clean Up Sound and Harbors president Chris Freeman, the event's third panelist, said he has seen the Narragansett Bay get cleaner in the last 40 years, partially because of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

    But, he said, there is much to be done to make sure the water there will be clean enough to swim in for future generations.

    "I see more opportunities at the municipal level than the federal level," he said.

    The effects of high nitrogen levels are not always visible above the surface of the water, Vaudrey said.

    "When we talk about water quality problems, we usually think about E. coli, or that we can't go swimming because the beaches are closed," she said. "But you have this stuff on the bottom just sitting there, this is an indication of a problem in our systems. There is something going on in the system that is out of balance."

    Vaudrey cited a 1999 scientific paper that proposed, somewhat humorously, the 'Eutrophication Ten Commandments.'

    They included some obvious approaches: "Thou shalt not pollute thy neighbor's water," for one, and "thou shalt remember future generations."

    But perhaps the most important, Vaudrey said, was the one that reminded her that even if people stopped dumping nitrogen into watersheds immediately, it would take 15 to 20 years for the water to get back to normal: "Thou shalt be patient."

    m.shanahan@theday.com

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