Clean harbor group expands reach beyond Stonington

By Judy Benson
The New London Day • 4/12/2011

A three-year-old grass-roots group focused on the local marine environment is expanding its reach beyond the waters off Stonington to all of Fishers Island Sound, and at the same time has announced plans to increase the scope of its signature project, water quality testing.

CUSH, which stood for Clean Up Stonington Harbors when it was formed, now stands for Clean Up Sound and Harbors, Gracelyn Guyol, founder and president, said Monday.

The group’s reach will now extend from the Thames River to the Rhode Island border.

She added, that CUSH is the only nonprofit environmental group in southeastern Connecticut with a mission to clean up and protect Fishers Island Sound and its coves, inlets, bays, rivers and harbors.

“The board believes now is a good time to make these changes, while we’re still a young organization,” she said in a news release. “Our new branding will clarify our mission and foster collaboration with land-oriented environmental groups to improve and protect local waters.”

With more than 150 members and a 10-person board, CUSH is looking for residents of the other coastal communities to become members and serve on the board.

One of the group’s key projects has been monitoring water quality at eight sites around Stonington Harbor, using a team of “citizen scientists” who volunteer to collect water samples from May to October.

The samples are tested for levels of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll – a measure of algae growth that can become excessive from an oversupply of nutrients – total nitrogen and E coli bacteria. Guyol said the group has pays for the testing with grants from local and federal organizations.

Thus far, said Claire Gavin, water testing director for CUSH, tests have shown the water quality ranges from excellent near Sandy Point, to “abysmal” near the head of Wequetequock Cove. In Stonington Harbor, sites at the Town Dock, Dodson’s Boatyard, Lambert’s Cove and Don’s Dock all met or exceeded regulatory water quality standards. Results from sites in Mystic Harbor and Mystic River were not as good, with nitrogen levels not meeting standards in the summer months, Gavin said in a recent report to CUSH members. She concluded that the reason for the lower water quality in the Mystic sites was that the area gets less tidal flushing that the Stonington ones.

But sites in Pequotsepos and Wequetequock coves raised the most concerns. Pequotsepos Cove had “borderline” levels of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and nitrogen in 2010, although improvement over the previous year was noted in Gavin’s report. In Wequetequock Cove, meanwhile, dissolved oxygen necessary for fish and other aquatic life levels failed to meet standards, as did both chlorophyll and nitrogen levels, especially in the summer.

Restricted tidal flows in the cove and low freshwater flows from feeder streams in the summer are probably to blame, Gavin concluded.

For its expanded monitoring this year, the group will intensify its work in the two coves with the poorest water quality, to better understand how conditions change with tides and after a rainstorm, Gavin said. She also hopes the work will help pinpoint the pollution sources and, ultimately, lead to a plan to reduce it.

Another new aspect of the project his year will monitor for pesticide and fossil fuel residues in marine waters at three sites. The work is being done under the direction of University of Connecticut-Avery Point marine chemistry professor Penny Vlahos.

The work will be part of a larger network of monitoring sites, including others in Long Island Sound, Vlahos said Monday.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to identify which compounds are an issue in those areas,” she said.

Gavin said that overall, the purpose of the monitoring is both to better understand current conditions and address the causes of pollution, and to use the data to educate the public about how the things they do on land can have an impact on the marine waters.