Cove residents in Stonington dealing with contaminated wells

The New London Day 8/30/2023

By Carrie Czerwinski, Special to The Day

Stonington ― Residents of the Wequetequock Cove area want to know how fecal coliform bacteria and other harmful contaminants are getting into their wells and the cove.

In addition, they are questioning why the cove has such poor water quality and what can be done to save it while ensuring they can drink their water.

“It makes you nervous what’s in that water,” Andrew Comolli, who lives on the cove, said Tuesday.

Comolli was among the two dozen people at a Monday evening meeting of the Wequetequock Cove Clean Water Coalition, which just took a step forward in its quest to find answers after a $47,250 grant was awarded to the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District by the Long Island Sound Stewardship Fund.

The grant will help the coalition organize and inform the public, as they work to find solutions to pollution in the cove and in their drinking water.

“The residents, of course, are very insecure about the drinking water and really concerned about the cove, but one easily comes to the top ― you’re worried about whether you can drink your water,” Paul Goetz, chairman of the coalition and owner of Stonington Marina, said Friday.

The coalition, which began with 17 business owners, has expanded to include residents and environmental groups.

The coalition’s platform includes stopping pollution from reaching the cove and addressing the health of the cove, which received an overall grade of D- in the 2022 Save the Sound Water Quality Report Card.

It failed in two categories ― oxygen saturation and dissolved oxygen ― both indicators of an unhealthy body of water. Low levels of dissolved oxygen are harmful to marine life, causing death at severely low levels.

The cove was the only body of water tested east of the Housatonic River that received lower than a C on the report.

The coalition’s platform includes using natural solutions like rain gardens, which filter water, and stopping untreated sewage from entering the groundwater by updating septic systems or connecting to a public sewer system.

Additionally, the coalition would like to reintroduce native plant and animal life like oysters and eel grass to the cove. Eel grass provides both a habitat for marine life and helps protect coastlines from storms, but it also filters water, as do oysters.

Goetz, the third generation of his family to live on the cove, remembers swimming in the water as a child, and a diverse amount of marine life in the water as well, including oysters.

Today, there are no oysters in the cove.

“When I was a kid, we swam in it, but you certainly wouldn’t do that now, and the data backs that up that it’s not fit for recreation,” Goetz said.

To date, well water at two of Goetz’s properties tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, and one of the wells continued to test positive after treating the water 10 times.

Fecal coliform bacteria originates in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. It can also indicate the presence of other pathogens in water.

Eventually, Goetz installed ultraviolet light water purifiers to kill bacteria and make the water safe to drink, but in talking with neighbors, he discovered at least three additional wells contaminated with the fecal coliform bacteria.

A 2021 plan to mitigate the pollution in the Anguilla Brook/Inner Wequetequock Cove watershed prepared by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District identified a number of sources for the contamination, but primarily pointed to water runoff into the cove including animal waste and fertilizer among other things as well as failing septic systems and cesspools.

The village of Wequetequock, which dates back to 1656 when the Samuel Chesebrough House was built on the cove, is bordered on both sides by public water and public sewers, but the mile and a half stretch running west from Greenhaven Road relies on wells, many within 100 feet of aging septic tanks and cesspools.

Water Pollution Control Authority Director Daniel Smith explained Tuesday that the locations of town’s three sewage treatment plants determine what areas can be sewered, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection guidelines for designated sewer shed zones.

Wequetequock Cove is not within a sewer shed zone, making the town ineligible for available Clean Water funds to extend sewers to the area. Without outside funding, the town would have to shoulder the entire cost, which Smith estimated to be millions of dollars. The project would involve installing sewer lines and pump stations required due to the area’s topography.

Smith said the town is currently gearing up to update the authority’s 20-year 2007 facilities plan for the town’s sewer system, and he hopes the new plan will allow sewer lines to run to the area. He cautioned that there are a number of factors contributing to the issue including the three marinas on the cove, identified by the ECCD plan as contributing factors.

“Pointing at the lack of sewers is kind of low-hanging fruit. There is a broader issue here. There’s no washing effect in the cove; it’s kind of a dead end, so whatever gets in there is just kind of stuck,” Smith said.

Goetz agrees with Smith about the lack of water flow, pointing to the Amtrak railroad bridge at the end of the cove, which restricts the flow of water and doesn’t allow the cove to flush well, trapping many contaminants. He suggests modernizing the aging bridge and making the passage for water beneath it wider.

First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said on Tuesday that well water issues are under the state’s jurisdiction, and the town had reached out to the Department of Public Health about the issue and would be willing to approach water suppliers Aquarion Water Co. and Westerly Water about the issue.

Chesebrough said the town recently hired a full-time grant writer and is willing to partner with the coalition to find external funding opportunities to address not only the drinking water, but the health of the cove as well.

“All these things are complex and expensive, and they take time, but obviously, we want to work with them,” she said. “We do try to stick with things and find a solution, it just takes time.”