Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Convergence of Modern Masters: Houses by Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Edward Durrell Stone Are All For Sale

Every once in a while I get an e-mail from someone who has read the three or four things I’ve written about the famous Modern houses in New Canaan and nearby, asking how he or she can see them. I always say that the houses are private but that a lot of them are visible from the road, if you know what roads they are on. I read here, in a piece by Fred Bernstein, who writes about Modern architecture often and knows a lot more about it than I do, that Janet Lindstron, the head of the New Canaan Historical Society, is far more guarded about responding to queries than even I am, refusing to divulge information for fear of participating in the invasion of the homeowners’ privacy. I’m less concerned about it: my feeling is that if you buy a stunning Modern house built by an acknowledged master, you have to expect a few cars to stop for a quick look.

I mention this because three Modern houses designed by three of the most important architects are on the market now: Mies van der Rohe’s Morris Greenwald House, Philip Johnson’s Hodgson House and Edward Durrell Stone’s Celanese House.

The Hodgson House, which Johnson designed in 1950 (with Landis Gores, I believe) is on New Canaan’s Ponus Ridge Road, opposite the Glass House. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places, and in fact Bernstein reports that the owners delayed putting it on the market until they succeeded in getting the designation, believing that National Register listing might dissuade future owners from tearing it down and building one of the hideous McMansions that New Canaan is famous for encouraging. Here’s a picture I took on a rainy afternoon it's a bad photo but I felt too conspicuous to get any closer), and another I took of the Glass House while peering over the stone wall that blocks it from view.


the Glass House and guest house

(The Glass House and all its outbuildings are now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The plan has long been to open the property as a museum, but I’ve heard that the National Trust is having trouble figuring out how to do so while still complying with the Americans with Disability Act.)

The Edward Durrell Stone house, which he designed in 1958, is called the Celanese House (although some people call it the “Pyramid House” because it has 6 or 8 small pyramids on the roof, a feature that makes the house hard to mistake for any other), and is also in New Canaan. Bernstein wrote that it was

designed as a showcase for that corporation’s products. Its gray-shingle façades are overlaid with an extensive wooden lattice, the work of the trellis-fixated Stone. The flat roof is punctured by a dozen pyramidal skylights, each of which supports an inverted metal pyramid that serves as an overhead planter. In 1950’s photos, the house is filled with custom furniture by Edward Wormley.

Now, the building is in poor shape – so poor that the owner, who is 102, would prefer that visitors not see the interior. Someday, the house will be sold, and the worse its condition, the harder it will be to find a buyer who appreciates the original Stone design.

The Celanese House is easily visible from Oenoke Ridge Road, which 50 years from now people will no doubt be looking on with nostalgia and lost-love for the all the McMansions that stain it now. Philip Johnson’s so-called Alice Ball House, by the way, is next door. It was sold not long ago and the new owner is converting it into a pool house.

The Mies house, on Homeward Lane in Weston, is called the Morris Greenwald House. Its dates are 1955-1963, whatever that means (did it take that long to build?). This website,, which Gillian DePalo at the William Raveis agency directed me to, says it’s one of only three that he designed and the only one that’s still in private hands. There are a lot of good photos here, at a blog called Hot New Design.

Oddly, if you click here, you can see a chronological listing of Mies’s work on the website of the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Architecture. It expresses skepticism about Mies’s involvement with the house, although it doesn’t explain why:

There is doubt that Mies had anything of consequence to do with the design of this house but with little evidence of the master's directing hand (sic).

We haven’t been in any of the three, although we’ve seen each of them from the road. I'll be watching to see if any open houses are scheduled.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Migrating Scoters, a Sanctuary on the Sound, and Edith G. Read

In the evening at this time of year, flocks of scoters migrate west above Long Island Sound and then turn right when they reach the Hudson, heading for their northern breeding grounds. If you’re lucky you can see them if you traipse out to the furthest tip of the Read Sanctuary, in Rye, and wait patiently. They appear far off shore, flying fast and in flocks that, from a distance, change shape like an amoeba. While you’re waiting you also see and hear plenty of other birds, and you get a view of the Sound that goes beyond 180 degrees to take in the Captain islands of Greenwich, the beaches of Long Island, the Throgs Neck Bridge, Co-op City.

The formal name for the place is the Edith G. Read Natural Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. It was (and is) the only big nature preserve in Westchester directly on the Sound, and when I worked as a reporter in Mamaroneck and New Rochelle, in the late 1980s, I used to go there a few times a year, usually under the pretense that I was (implausibly) looking for something to write about but really just because it was wild and beautiful.

I thought of the Read Sanctuary, and its scoters and the thousands of ducks that winter on its big lake, this morning when I read Edith Read’s obituary. She was the grande dame of Westchester County environmentalists. In the 1980s she was relentless in pushing the county government to clean up a remote section of Playland Amusement Park and turn it into a nature center – which the county, to its credit, did, naming it after her.

By the time I got on the scene, 20-plus years ago, Edith Read was already old and venerable. I interviewed her a couple of times on the phone (she wasn’t a great interview) and met her maybe once, but I certainly didn’t know her. But her name was always out there, invoked by others with respect and in a tone indicating that in environmental matters, she was beyond reproach – and that if you weren’t sure who she was, that was your problem. When she died on Wednesday, she was 102.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

When Controlling Canada Geese You Don't Need a Raincoat, But ...

Goose eggs ... When you have a problem with Canada geese, as Greenwich and many other suburban towns do, and you’ve been persuaded that killing them is not an acceptable solution, you have to learn some extremely specialized skills. You have to work during nesting season, and it’s a two-person job, as the Greenwich Time reports.

One person coats the egg with corn oil. That’s the easy and dignified task. The other person, who has undergone extensive training in the technique

keeps the geese away by repeatedly opening and closing an umbrella.

I hope someone somewhere is getting that on film.

No jargon ... Because I’ve criticized (here and here) what I think is the overly-rosy conclusion of the Sound Health report issued recently by the Long Island Sound Study, I feel compelled to make clear some other thoughts I have about the report:

When combined with the additional material online, Sound Health is comprehensive, clearly and concisely written (there’s not a word of government jargon to be found), loaded with useful and interesting information, and well-illustrated (including the graphs, which tend to be easier to understand online rather than in the newsprint edition).

All in all it’s a good job that, considering the level of meddling and bureaucratic review that government people undergo before they publish anything, must have been accomplished under conditions ranging from merely frustrating to harrowing.

I hope thousands read it (just as I hope they aren’t lulled into complacency by the “Sound’s health is improving” theme).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Long Island Sound Water Quality Over the Years: The Creeping Black Blotches

To check myself in my belief that the Long Island Sound Program was overstating things when it asserted that that water quality in the Sound was improving, I clicked through the water quality maps (annual and monthly) on the Connecticut DEP website and chose the ones that seemed to show water quality at its poorest. Admittedly, looking at the worst-case situations is only one way of judging the health of an estuary, but I think it’s as legitimate as any. (The maps are all here, you can see for yourselves whether my choices were fair.)

On the maps, the worst water quality is shown in black, next worse is red, then orange, yellow, green, and blue.

In the first three years – 1991, '92 and ’93 – there’s no black and only a bit of red. A small amount of black shows up in 1994, and the red area has grown. In 1996, there’s no black and only a little red.

1997 was a good year but red and black return in ’98, and in ’99, 2000 and 2001 the red area is extensive.

But then look at 2002 through 2005 – on each map the black area dominates the waters between Nassau and Westchester counties, and moves into the waters off Fairfield and Suffolk in some years.

It’s hard for me to look at these maps, which are essentially snapshots of the Sound at its worst, and conclude that water quality is getting better. But if someone wanted to tell me I don’t’ know what I’m talking about, I’d listen.

Here's a sample of the maps, from 1991 through 2005 (click on each map to make it bigger):

"Sound Health" and its Rosy View of the Health of the Sound

“Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves.”

That’s the headline on a Long Island Sound Study press release that came in the mail the other day announcing that EPA’s Long Island Sound office has compiled its third “Sound Health” report. Now I realize that “Sound Health” is a government document, and I also realize that it probably would take truly catastrophic conditions for any government staff person who answers to an elected official to say that environmental conditions are worsening. But when I read “Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves,” my question was “Compared to what?”

The lobster catch is the lowest its been since 1983. The oyster harvest is lower than it’s been at any time since ’83. There are a lot more striped bass but, among the anadromous fish, there are virtually no blueback herring or alewives anymore (which isn’t mentioned in the report). Fish biomass (that is, the weight of fish caught in regular trawl surveys conducted by the Connecticut DEP) is the same as it was in 1992.

And what of hypoxia? Each summer dissolved oxygen concentrations fall, particularly in the western half of the Sound. The drop happens because nitrogen, which is a component of sewage, acts as a fertilizer in the Sound and fuels the growth of algae. When the algae die, the decomposition process uses up oxygen. The physical characteristics of the Sound’s water column prevent an oxygen recharge until the cooler days of September arrive. The result is that for a good part of the summer – from late July through August, give or take a week – a good part of the Sound can support virtually no fish.

The report notes that 34 of the 105 sewage plants in the Sound area have been upgraded to remove nitrogen, and that there is now 47,000 fewer pounds of nitrogen a year reaching the Sound – a 24 percent decrease over the past decade or so.

The result has indeed been an improvement in water quality, as measured by hypoxia. But, as I said, compared to what? Compared to the late 1980s, when hypoxia was at its worst. But when I go to this site and click on water quality measures and then look at graph 9 (which shows the number of square miles and the number of days that dissolved oxygen concentrations were below 3 parts per million), I see a bad period (1987, ’88 and ’89) followed by a better bad period (’90, 91, 92), followed by another bad period (’93-’96), followed by a better period (’97-2002), followed by another period (’03, ‘04, ’05). Over two decades, water quality in the Sound has fluctuated between bad and less bad.

What the report doesn’t show however is that essentially all of the Sound between Nassau County and Westchester County is not just hypoxic in late summer, but severely hypoxic – that is, dissolved oxygen falls below 1 ppm, which is considerably worse than 3 ppm.

I realize there’s a difficult public perception problem for the Long Island Sound Study people who are compiling and interpreting the data for the report. They are committed to the cleanup and they want to make sure it continues, and so they want to show that progress is being made. One sure way of getting support and continued public funding is to show that you are doing what you set out to do and that so far the money has been well spent. And of course in many ways it has.

But if they emphasize areas in which there’s been little progress or, worse, a regression, they risk having people throw up their hands in despair and say the cleanup is not worth it.

The cleanup is definitely worth it. What I worry about is that reports which emphasize (over-emphasize?) progress will inspire complacency. I’ve argued elsewhere that the amount of media attention paid to the Sound recently has been appallingly low – people have barely noticed that over the last few summers the western end of the Sound has been in really bad shape.

The Sound Health report, and the additional charts and data on the LISS website, have tons of information. The best thing may be to read it yourself and make your own judgment about whether “Long Island Sound Water Quality Improves.”

Monday, April 24, 2006

Over the Weekend: Sound Health, Global Warming in the Times, Broadwater & Tyrants, and Deer

The Sound Health report, published by the Long Island Sound Study, came out yesterday, as an insert in Sunday papers. There’s lots of good stuff in it, and even more if you click around on the webpage, here. My impression though is that it paints a picture that’s a bit too rosy for reality. I’ll explain why later.

How To Get Global Warming Stories in the New York Times ... A couple of months ago I was on a panel at a conference with Andy Revkin, who covers global warming for the Times’ Science section, and he was saying how difficult it was to write about climate change in a way that would earn his story a spot on page 1. By its nature, he said, climate change is an issue that changes in tiny increments. There is very little that is equivalent to a political scandal or a spectacular crime or an election campaign – nothing that fits into what newspapers consider breaking news.

But yesterday Andy wrote his way onto the cover of the Week in Review by asserting the very thing that he said made it hard to cover the issue on a daily basis:

Global warming has the feel of breaking news these days.

Considering the attention that’s been paid lately to climate change and its affect on Long Island Sound, it’s worth reading for an overview of the public perception of global warming – namely that most people still don’t think it’s a problem.

At the Mercy of Tyrants ... This piece, in Newsday, argues that if we commit ourselves to projects such as the Broadwater LNG terminal and other LNG terminals, we're commiting ourselves to a future of electricity-generation that is at the mercy of foreign powers that aren't too fond of the United States.

Trillium protected from deer

Our Wildflower ... Whenever someone tells me he doesn’t think deer are a real problem and that even if they are a problem, they are not a big enough one to justify hunting, I show him this: it’s our trillium. On a property that used to have pink lady’s-slippers, hepatica, bloodroot, Canada mayflower, trout lily, trillium and more, we now have one trillium. We keep it fenced in, as a reminder.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Endangered Rivers

Every year an organization called American Rivers releases its list of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers. It’s a bit of a publicity stunt, although it’s not, as publicity stunts go, a terrible one. But does it do any good?

The organization’s website has a long list of rivers that made the endangered list in previous years, in a section described as progress and successes. For example, shortly after the Susquehanna River was put on the list last year, Maryland and the federal government each made policy changes that presumably will benefit the river. After the Hudson was put on the list, in 2001, EPA ordered GE to clean up the PCBs that the company had dumped into the river.

Those are in fact examples of progress. But can they plausibly be linked to the endangered river listing? Probably not, but it didn’t hurt either.

Most importantly, though, the listing is an encouragement – it gives activists something to grab onto and publicize in their efforts to get governments and businesses to change the way they treat local rivers. It’s a tool that the people who know the issue best – the local activists – can use as they see fit.

So yes, it’s what media observers in the old days used to call a pseudo-event. But pseudo-events often fulfill their purpose, and my guess is that this is true for the endangered rivers list.

This year’s list, which came out this week, has a lot of rivers you’ve never heard of. You can see it at the American Rivers website, here or here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

It's Official: The Times is Killing its Regional Weeklies

Newsday is reporting today that the Times is killing its regional weeklies. I wrote about it on Sphere first, eight days ago, and I still think it's bad news for coverage of environmental issues.

Which is Worse -- Long Island Sound or Narragansett Bay?

It would be interesting to know which estuary is in worse shape – Long Island Sound or Narragansett Bay. And which is getting more attention paid to it.

I mention this after reading this post on the Narragansett Baykeeper’s blog. Baykeeper John Torgan discusses the report from last week about the Bay’s dead mussels and hypoxia. Here’s what he writes:

Low dissolved oxygen can cause fish kills if it happens suddenly, as it did in Greenwich Bay in August, 2003. It has also caused massive numbers soft-shelled clams to wash up dead, as well as sea stars, oysters, and blue mussels. It is this same algae that piles up on the Warwick and Cranston shorelines causing rotting egg odor so strong it drives people from their homes.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this? First, we have to adopt advanced wastewater treatment practices at all the Bay's major wastewater facilities. This can be done equitably, and no single plant or company is solely responsible. Rhode Island has established nitrogen limits for some wastewater plants, but much of the treated wastewater flowing into the Bay still has very high nitrogen levels. Passing the clean water bond issue in November will help the state raise money for these sorely-needed upgrades.

Second, we need to eliminate cesspools entirely and get coastal communities to upgrade septic systems wherever it is practicable. It's shameful that we still have so many raw pits of sewage and clogged septic systems discharging directly into the Bay.

Third, we have to do a better job monitoring the Bay. Last year, the Rhode Island legislature failed to appropriate any money for Bay monitoring. Without standardized and comprehensive monitoring, we're not getting the information we need to accurately measure the health of the Bay. Lacking complete science is no excuse, though, for delaying decisive action where it is clearly needed.

I clearly remember from the late 1980s and early 1990s that Long Island Sound was also grouped with three other estuaries that were in bad shape and also were the subject of research coordinated by the U.S. EPA under the National Estuary Program – Buzzards Bay, Puget Sound and Narragansett Bay. Being based in neither Massachusetts nor Washington nor Rhode Island, I didn’t pay much attention to those other studies. But from what Torgan writes, I can only assume that the process that led to the ongoing monitoring of water quality in the Sound and the massive, across the board nitrogen reduction program at Sound sewage plants never really took off on Narragansett Bay – I think.

I say I think, because there’s this story in the Providence Journal, about a sewage treatment plant upgrade in West Warwick, R.I. The reporter writes:

Officials yesterday also unveiled the most costly addition to the plant -- a $22-million Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant that greatly reduces the level of nitrogen in the effluent released into the Pawtuxet River bound for Narragansett Bay.

He goes on to say that only four of 11 treatment plants in the state have complied with nitrogen removal regulations.

The story, by the way, is about the dedication of the West Warwick treatment plant. Apparently in Rhode Island they name sewage treatment plants after people. Perhaps we should adopt that practice on the Sound. I could easily think of a bunch of people worthy of having a sewage plant named after them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pesticide Manufacturers Agree to Pay Out More Cash to Lobstermen for a Problem They Didn't Have Much to Do With

Long Island Sound lobstermen announced yesterday that they've reached a $12.5 million settlement from a pesticide manufacturer in a lawsuit the obstermen filed in connection with the 1999 lobster die-off. Combined with an earlier $3.75 million settlement, it means the lobstermen have now gotten $16.25 million in damages from an industry that scientists think did not have all that much responsibility for the die-off.

The Boston Globe story about the settlement is here, , and the summary of what caused the die-off is here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sewage from the Queen City of the Sound

Residents and politicians in New Rochelle want to know why, if the sewage plant that serves the Queen City of the Sound was designed to treat 13.6 million gallons a day but actually treats 15 million gallons a day, big new housing projects are being approved by and built in the city.

Almost 20 years ago the state put a moratorium on new extensions of the sewer district. This came during the environmental review of a proposal to build almost 2,000 condos on Davids Island, off New Rochelle, and led eventually to the death of that project.

So why was the Davids Island project not allowed to hook in to the sewage plant but big downtown developments being built today can?

The answer is that Davids Island was not in the New Rochelle sewage district and the moratorium prevented new additions to the district. The new downtown developments are already in the district and thus have to be allowed to connect in, despite the fact that the treatment plant is over its permit. Today’s Journal News has a story and a couple of county legislators are planning to discuss the situation at a public meeting tomorrow evening.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Over the Weekend: Seaweed, Lobsters, Development Plans

The place we rented in New Canaan for 10 years, way out of town near the New York border, had been a farm, and as recently as the 1950s and 1960s had had a couple of dairy cows. The soil was rich and dark, and we put in a garden in a sunny spot at the top of an old field. We added manure and compost every year, but it really didn’t need much to grow beans, squash, carrots and parsnips, peas, basil, tomatoes.

The place we moved to in 2000 though is on the top of a hill, a clearing in the woods. The soil is thin and light brown, and although we’ve continued to add manure and compost, it still looks impoverished and the vegetable yield is an annual disappointment.

Which is not to say we’ve given up. Yesterday we drove to Bayley Beach, a tiny but beautiful spot in Rowayton, and after sitting in the sun for a while we took a 10-gallon pail and filled it three-quarters of the way with seaweed that we lifted out the shallows with sticks. Seaweed makes a good addition to the garden, I’ve heard, so back home I dumped the pail onto a mound of compost that’s about ready to be spread and mixed it in. Will it make a difference? Probably not. But whether it’s berries or clams or seaweed, we like the idea of gathering, of harvesting, and maybe the bounty of algae in Long Island Sound will help the bounty of tomatoes at home.

In the old days, farmers used to add fish and lobsters to the soil. Timothy Dwight described it after a trip from New Haven to Long Island a couple of centuries ago:

… they have swept the Sound, and covered their fields with the immense shoals of whitefish with which in the beginning of summer it waters are replenished. No manure is so cheap as this where the fish abound; none is so rich; and few are so lasting … the number caught is almost incredible. It is here said … that one hundred and fifty thousand have been taken at a single draft.

Dwight added that however good it was for the harvest, the fish manure was a problem for passers-by:

… their effluvia filled the atmosphere, and made our journey sufficiently unpleasant.

Nobody uses fish that way anymore, of course, nor lobster. In fact fishermen and biologists are still waiting for the lobster population to come back from the 1999 die off so they can be caught and used for for something more profitable.

In yesterday’s Stamford Advocate, John Nickerson reports that lobstermen are still hopeful but that scientists are scratching their heads about why the rebound is taking so long. He went out with a lobstering crew captained by Gary Olewnik from Norwalk on a boat called the Jennifer Lynn:

Basket after basket pulled up on Jennifer Lynn's gunwale contained few traps with any legal lobsters inside.

But the news wasn't all bad. For every legal lobster, four or five small ones were tossed back. After pulling four shorts out of one pot, Olewnik said he wasn't disappointed that so few lobsters could be taken.

But elsewhere in the story Nickrson writes:

Penny Howell, senior biologist in the DEP's Marine Fisheries Division Headquarters in Old Lyme, said she has been expecting the lobster population to grow, but it hasn't.

"The good news is (the number of lobsters) is not dropping . . . The bad news is, it hasn't improved," Howell said. "It is at historically low numbers. We hoped that six years after the die-off that the abundance of smaller animals would have improved."
The reasons for the fishery not improving are proving as perplexing as the die-off itself.

Howell said there is evidence in a recent Massachusetts lobster study suggesting that striped bass and other predatory fish moving into waters along the Northeast could be eating immature lobsters that weigh up to one-half pound. Lobstermen believe they are eating even bigger ones.

"Two years ago I would have confidently said that they will recover, but they have been held at low levels for so long, I honestly don't know," Howell said.

Development: Good, bad or who knows? Bridgeport has big hopes for redeveloping Steel Point, on the Sound. The Times points out that it has had big hopes for a lot of things for a long time, and few have worked out.

The new Friends of the Bay newsletter is available online. It has a long argument against the Avalon Bay housing proposal for the Oyster Bay hamlet, arguing that unless the proposal is part of a comprehensive smart growth plan for the hamlet, it’s not smart growth and shouldn’t be approved.

From Bayley Beach yesterday we could see Oyster Bay and Huntington Bay. There were few boats on the water but the day was clear enough that we could easily distinguish the bluffs on Lloyd Point, eight miles away.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Value of an Acre of Sound-front Land

How much is undeveloped, buildable land on the shore of Long Island Sound worth?

How does $3.5 million sound? Per acre.

I was flipping through the real estate advertising supplement that came with yesterday's Times and came upon a listing for house on Sasco Hill Road, in Fairfield: big house, 5.5 acres, 178 feet of beachfront -- $17.7 million. However if you want just the house and 3.5 acres, you can have it for $10.7 million.

The other two acres are an approved building lot. Apparently you can pick them up for $7 million -- or $3.5 million an acre.

Here's the listing.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Narragansett Bay's Mussel Blues: Hypoxia Wiped them Out

Timing can mean everything in scientific field work. Recall that back in 1987, UConn’s Barbara Welsh happened to be monitoring dissolved oxygen levels over Hempstead Sill, in Long Island Sound between Westchester and Nassau Counties, when a vast bloom of brownish algae led to the conditions that killed marine life and turned the western third of the Sound into a dead zone.

If she hadn’t been there, working on the Long Island Sound Study, people surely would have noticed the fish kills but nobody would have been collecting the data that explained why the fish were dying would and nobody would have been making the personal observations that added depth to the data.

A scientist named Andrew Altieri, who was doing research on Narragansett Bay’s mussels, got similarly lucky in 2001 during one of that estuary’s bad hypoxia events. He was working on his doctorate at Brown University at the time and he and a Brown professor, Jon D. Whitman, published the results of the research this week in the journal Ecology.

The bottom line is that Narragansett Bay had nine vast mussel reefs, covering 250 acres. When the hypoxia hit, in the summer of 2001, it killed an estimated 4.5 billion mussels.

The Altieri-Whitman article doesn’t appear to be on line yet, but Peter Lord, the Providence Journal’s environment reporter, has some terrific details in a story he wrote this week:

Altieri had no idea he would swim into an historic pollution event when he began his research in the fall of 2000. He wanted to study the ecology of mussel beds.

Typically mussels attach themselves to rocks or pilings. But Altieri found vast "reefs" of mussels on the Bay floor, holding themselves up by attaching to each other with their golden byssal threads.

He found more than 250 acres of mussel reefs. The biggest covered about 64 acres at the north end of Prudence Island. He also found sizable reefs just south of Warwick Point, at the north end of Jamestown, just off Hog and Hope islands, and at other places around Prudence Island.

"It was pretty impressive," said Altieri. "They were living reefs."

He found the mussel reefs provided habitat for other animals, served as a food resource for other animals such as starfish, and played a critical role in filtering algae from the water.

Altieri stopped diving for a few weeks during the summer of 2001 because of an ear infection.

When he got back underwater in August, he said, "It was immediately obvious that something catastrophic had happened."

The mussels had fallen into piles of dead shells, many covered with white bacteria. The starfish were gone.

Altieri and Witman estimated that 80 percent of the mussels were dead. (Quahogs can tolerate much lower oxygen levels.)

When they returned to study the reefs in the fall of 2001 and a year later, they found one reef gone and seven others dramatically depleted.

Without the mussels filtering algae from the water, future algae blooms could be worse, in turn causing more problems for other marine life, Altieri said.

"This mussel story is a great indication of what can happen in the Bay," Altieri said. "The mussels were canaries in the coal mine. Hundreds of other estuaries have the exact same problem."

You can read Lord’s story here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bye-bye to the New York Times Regional Weeklies?

The New York Times is about to kill off its regional weeklies -- the Connecticut section, the Westchester section and the Long Island section. At least that's what I've heard from a pretty good source.

If it turns out to be true, I'm sure it makes economic sense for the Times. But it's bad for the regions, which will be losing a kind of coverage the dailies don't provide -- namely the summing up of a month or two (or more) of news in one good long comprehensive story, often about an environmental issue.

I've been told that staff has been laid off and regular freelancers have been told they won't be needed any longer. The Times's plan, as I understand it,is to publish one weekly section covering all of New York's outer suburbs.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A New Addition to the Local Fauna: Castor Canadensis

I spent part of the morning traipsing through a calcareous fen that is about to be surveyed for bog turtles, and on the way back to our cars my companions and I watched a large mammal swim across the lake that the fen drains into.

The others were sure of what it was, but I was skeptical. A few minutes later, though, we came upon two thin pussy willow trunks that clearly had been chewed off, lying in the shallows of the lake – the unmistakable sign of Castor canadensis, the American beaver. It was the first one I’ve seen in our town, and for all I know might be the first one anyone has seen here in modern times.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Over the Weekend: Saturday's Conference, the Experiment from Hell, and Other Digressions

I took my time getting to the Long Island Sound Citizens Summit conference in Bridgeport on Saturday, because I’ve been to a lot of conferences and good ones are very rare. I was hopeful about Saturday’s, but in truth I went as much out of obligation as anything else.

But I was wrong. It was a terrific conference in more than one sense, and Save the Sound/Connecticut Fund for the Environment deserves credit for getting a lot of good speakers, for attracting a big crowd, and for persuading a lot of news media people to cover it.

The first thing I was wrong about was the size of the crowd. I had figured fewer than 100 people would attend. But the big meeting room at the Holiday Inn in Bridgeport was filled by the time I got there, at 9:45 (about 45 minutes late), with about 160 people. Somebody made a comment later about how the conference was preaching to the choir. This was certainly true, but I consider it to be a good thing. This is an important time for the Sound politically and ecologically, and preaching to the choir is an excellent way of strengthening and solidifying the Sound’s base of supporters. So preach on.

I made a list of people I knew who were there (and it goes without saying that there were a lot of people I didn’t know): Mickey Weiss of Project Oceanology, Paul Stacey and Mark Parker of Connecticut DEP, Sandy Breslin and Tom Baptist of Audubon Connecticut, Bob Funicello of Westchester County, Peter Sattler of the Interstate Environmental Commission, Bill Boysen of SoundWaters, Dave Burg of Wild Metro, Vince Breslin (and a bunch of his grad students) from Southern Connecticut State, Nancy Seligson and Shelia O’Neill (former board members of Save the Sound), Martha McCormick Smith of Yale, Karen Chytalo of New York State DEC, Emmett Pepper and Maureen Dolan of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Kiki Kennedy (board member of CFE), among others. And between Vince Breslin’s students and others who I think were from Columbia University, there was enough new blood to be encouraging.

The first speaker was Gina McCarthy, the Connnecticut DEP commissioner, and I confess that I tried to time my arrival to miss most of her talk – I’ve heard commissioners give speeches before, and generally they consist of one long platitude. I probably heard about half McCarthy’s talk, and I was impressed with her irreverence, her lack of pomposity, and her wit.

And with her New England accent. The theme of the conference was climate change, and she talked, for example, about how changes in the amount we drive and the kinds of vehicles we drive can make a big difference in the amount of greenhouse gases we’re responsible for. “The koz you drive are important,” she said, “and there are great koz out there that you can purchase.”

Once I figured out what koz were, I agreed wholeheartedly.

As I mentioned, the event got good press coverage (here and here), and so I’m not going to summarize the proceedings. But I picked up some interesting facts and observations.

Joop Varekamp, who grew up in Holland in the 1950s and ‘60s and who now teaches science at Wesleyan University, said that when he was a boy he could skate from town to town on the frozen canals in winter. It’s been years, though, since the canals have had sufficient ice.

Varekamp studies the sediments from the Sound area and draws inferences, about pollutants and about global warming. He said, for example, that sea level rise, as measured near the mouth of the Housatonic and the mouth of the Connecticut, was one millimeter a year in 1660, 1.7 a year in 1900, and 3 a year in 2000 – clear evidence of global warming.

In the Middle Ages there was a significant warming period, he said, but it was not enough to cause hypoxia. From that he infers that global warming alone hasn’t been enough to cause hypoxia.

Hypoxia, he said, is clearly a result of the increase in sewage and nitrogen dumped into the Sound – an increase that was measurable as long ago as the early 1800s. Therefore, he said, the data support the Sound cleanup program. It’s expensive, but “ultimately it is going to pay off and it is going to bring back the waters of Long Island Sound.”

At which point I’m pretty sure I heard the many people in the room who are working on the Sound cleanup exhale in relief.

Robert Whitlatch, of the University of Connecticut, talked about invasive species, and said biodiversity is clearly important to a healthy ecosystem: the more diverse an ecological community is, the less vulnerable it is to invaders.

Unfortunately a previously unknown sea squirt, called Didemnum, has moved in from the east and is now covering the sea floor in the eastern end of the Sound. Its skin has a pH of 2, so nothing grows on it. It has changed foraging areas for fish and recruitment areas for blue mussels, and not for the better.

David Conover of Stony Brook University explained that for fish, Long Island is a transition zone – it is the southern end of the range for some northern species and the northern end of the range for some southern species, which makes the Sound different from Delaware Bay, for example, or Massachusetts Bay.

Twenty years of trawling by the Connecticut DEP has shown that the numbers of southern fish such as weakfish, summer flounder, black sea bass and hickory shad are all higher. Northern species such as winter flounder, Atlantic herring, and lobster are all down. (I asked why we should care that we're losing northern species if southern species are moving in to replace them, and he conceded that it's a value judgment: people like to catch winter flounder and lobsters, for example, and both are less abundant. But they also like to catch summer flouder and black sea bass, so to me it doesn't make much difference.)

During the Q&A session, lots of people wanted predictions of the future. Conover said one of the problems is that so many ecological changes are happening simultaneously that it is impossible to predict and very difficult to manage risk.

“What we are doing with planet earth,” he said, “is a massive experiment from hell.”

On that cheerful note, I’ll go back to an issue of critical importance to anyone sitting in a meeting room for five hours on a Saturday. I’m talking, of course, about PowerPoint. Suffice it to say that I hate PowerPoint presentations, that they are badly misused by speakers, and that rather than improve communications PowerPoint has become a barrier.

Speaker after speaker on Saturday spent their entire time at the podium looking at their PowerPoint slides on the screen rather than talking to the audience. I felt like yelling, “We’re out here! Talk to us!” (Varekamp and McCarthy were exceptions in that they actually looked at us while talking to us, and Lynn Stoddard of the Connecticut DEP didn’t use slides at all, which should put her at the top of the invitees list for future conferences.)

Speaker after speaker gave us brief glimpses of complicated graphs designed for a college science classes and expected us to grasp what they were illustrating. And one speaker apologized because the information on his slide was too small to read. This led me to conclude that, generally speaking, if you feel it necessary to say you‘re sorry because your slide is unreadable, it’s probably safe to get rid of that slide.

But I quibble. As I said, it was a terrific conference, well worth a Saturday. And by the way, I ran into some of these nice folks (I think they are members of a civic organization), who were staying at the Bridgeport Holiday Inn while attending a funeral. They were in my way as I tried to walk through the front door but I didn’t feel the need to quibble with them.

And now some related digressions…

Digression 1: When you spend the day in Bridgeport, you feel both sad and a bit awestruck. Awestruck because as you drive or walk around, it’s obvious what a terrific place downtown Bridgeport used to be; sad because when the great manufacturing industries left, the city lost its economic vitality (and putting I-95 through Bridgeport was a horrendous, community-killing move as well).

People who actually know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about haven’t been able to help Bridgeport much, so I’ll keep my mouth shut about it. But the New London Day has an interesting story about another old waterfront city, Norwich, and how there are hopes to use at least one of the old mills.

Digression 2: And for another example of how highways can destroy communities, read this, from the New Haven Register, about Route 34. Truth is, the city probably ought to think about tearing the whole thing down.

Digression 3: If we needed an illustration of the conflicts that will arise as sea level rises, the Stamford Advocate has a story about a good one. A homeowner on Stamford’s Shippan Point – not the shabbiest of neighborhoods – wants to build a seawall to stop his bluffs from eroding. The DEP is saying not so fast: bluffs are an important coastal resource and you need to find a different way of protecting them.

Digression 4 (unrelated to anything I heard or saw at the conference): there’s a classic use conflict going on on the lower Mianus River between lobstermen and a businessman who doesn’t like having the lobstermen around, here.

Digression 5: Curt Johnson, an attorney for CFE, mentioned to me during the lunch break that a committee of the legislature was putting $50 million into the Clean Water Fund. I refrained from bragging that I had had that scoop on Friday, courtesy of Terry Backer. Curt said that a lot of the credit should go to the Coalition for Funding the Environment, which lobbied hard, and to CFE itself, which generated more than 100 phone calls and e-mails to Hartford. I agree. Good work.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Proposal to Increase Funding for the Sound Cleanup Gains in the Connecticut Legislature

Good news from the Connecticut Legislature regarding money for the Long Island Sound cleanup. Terry Backer, the Soundkeeper and a legislator from Stratford, just told me that the House Finance, Revenue and Bonding committee increased the amount of money in the Clean Water Fund by $30 million, from $20 million to $50 million.

It will now go to the floor for a vote. Terry says the budget is in flux all the time and it’s possible the number will still change. Calls, letters and e-mails to Connecticut representatives can only help, he says.

“I would do it very soon,” he says.

Readers will remember that for the last few years the Connecticut Legislature has been taking money out of the fund. Save the Sound/Connecticut Fund for the Environment estimated that if the oney wasn’t restored, the cleanup of the Sound would be pushed back from 2014 to 2039.

There's plenty of background information scattered through Sphere. Here and here., for example, but lots of other places over the last five or six months of posts.

Global Warming, the Sound and the Scientists Who are Studying Both

If you’re going to tomorrow’s Long Island Sound Citizens Summit conference in Bridgeport (or even if you’re not) you’ll be interested in this Hartford Courant story about Joop Varekamp and Ellen Thomas, husband-and-wife scientists who are among the main presenters at the event. Reporter David Funkhouser writes that they met in the Netherlands, in a chemistry class on the precipitation of carbonates:

Four decades later, the husband-and-wife team of scientists still study the comings and goings of carbon, and their work is shedding light on the effects of global warming on Long Island Sound….

Thomas, a paleo-oceanographer, works with foraminifera, miniscule creatures that form one of the bottom layers of the food chain. By studying the muddy sediments on the floor of the Sound, she looks back thousands of years to see what lived there, and under what conditions.

Varekamp, a geochemist and vulcanologist, also peers into the past - in Connecticut's case, to the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago when a receding ice sheet left behind a trough that would become Long Island Sound.

"We use information from the past to reconstruct how the environment has been changing, and then we bring it up to the modern day and compare that with the situation as it's being monitored by [other scientists]," he said.

The story also has a clear and concise summary of how global warming might be affecting the Sound. It's worth a read and it sounds as if the conference will be worth six or seven hours on a Saturday.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Where are the Environment Reporters? Here's a List of Things I'd Like to Know About

Have the reporters who cover the environment in the region all gone on spring break? Or have the cutbacks at their newspapers been so great that they’re busy covering other things like fires and parades and visits to Connecticut by the president? Whatever it is, environment reporting has been severely lacking lately, putting me in a bind. It’s hard to blog without news and it’s hard to get news if reporters aren’t out there scaring up stories. Yesterday I had to resort to a seven-year-old anecdote from the Hudson River.

But maybe it’s just a lack of ideas on the part of reporters that’s holding them back. If so, here’s a list of things to look into. Or if you’re not a reporter and you happen to know about some of these, drop me a line. You can click through the archives here for background information.

1.The Connecticut Legislature has been severely underfunding its Clean Water Fund, jeopardizing the Long Island Sound cleanup. But some legislators want to increase the amount of money in the fund this year. What is the status of that attempt?

2. It’s almost a year since 12 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into a tributary of the Sound in New Haven. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said at the time there would be an investigation. Then he shut up. Was there an investigation and, if so, what was the result?

3. A few years ago New York City tried to convince state regulators to allow the city to use a nitrogen removal method at its sewage treatment plants that apparently had beeen used successfully in the Netherlands, a method that goes by the acronym of SHARON. The city said the method was cheaper and more efficient. The state said no and required the city to agree to a new nitrogen removal schedule. But it also gave permission for the city to use the SHARON method on a trial basis at its Wards Island plant, on the far western end of the Sound. What exactly is SHARON and does it really have the potential to do a better and cheaper job cleaning up the Sound?

4. It’s spring, and anadromous fish are returning to spawn. There are so few alewives and blueback herring that it’s illegal to catch them anywhere between New York and New Hampshire. But what about their cousin, the American shad? What condition is the Connecticut River’s shad fishery in?

5. Has anyone who requested Broadwater CEII information from FERC received it? And if so, did they get what they needed or was the material too heavily-redacted to be useful?

6. Birds are a good indicator of environmental health. Fifteen years ago the Sound had colonial bird rookeries on Huckleberry Island off New Rochelle, Captain’s Island off Greenwich (I forget if it was Great or Little Captain’s), Chimon Island off Norwalk, Falkner’s Island off Guilford, and elsewhere. Are they still thriving? Have other islands been colonized? Has the number and kinds of species changed in any way?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Best Stuff: Shad from the Hudson

Back in 1999 I wanted to write a newspaper story about the status of shad fishing, and of shad themselves, in the Hudson River, so I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge to visit Bob Gabrielson, one of the few remaining rivermen, at his house, in Nyack. It was early April and I found him in a tiny office, preparing other people’s tax returns, which he did as a sideline (and which told me all I needed to know about the viability of commercial fishing on the Hudson). My guess is that he was probably 70; he was clear-eyed and good-humored, and although he didn’t particularly respect the press (he had been interviewed a lot in his life), once we established that he was of Norwegian stock and had been raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and that I was of Norwegian stock and had relatives from Bay Ridge, he warmed up and we had a good interview. He mentioned that people buy shad roe directly from him and so as I was about to leave I told him that when the run starts, I’d like to buy some. He took out a little book and wrote down my name and number

Good to his word, he called, on the morning of April 14. I asked if he could spare two, and when he said he could, I drove back to Nyack. A cold front must have moved through overnight, because the sky was clear, the air looked washed. The wind whipped from the north and stirred up white caps on the waters of the Tappan Zee. I parked in front of his house and walked down the driveway to the back door. Gabrielson waved me in through the aluminum storm door before I could knock. He was in the kitchen eating cinnamon toast with I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter. A small TV on the kitchen counter was tuned to Rosie O’Donnell interviewing Cher. We chatted for a few minutes in the kitchen. He told me there were so few shad around that Christopher Letts, who organizes shad festivals for the Hudson River Foundation, was on his way to Bridgeton, N.J., on Delaware Bay, to buy shad for an upcoming festival. He said John Cronin was buying shad from the Connecticut River for his Riverkeeper shad fest. He said these things in a tone that indicated that Letts and Cronin would be embarrassed at the disclosures. (Thinking back, I can’t imagine why I didn’t call up Chris and John, confirm what Gabrielson told me, and write a story about how the fishing has gotten so bad on the Hudson that Hudson River shad festivals were using fish imported from the Delaware and the Connecticut.)

As we were talking, he found a knife and a Ziploc bag. We went down to the cellar and out a door to the backyard. He opened a cooler to show me a 30-pound striped bass (or stripe-id bass, as he pronounced it) his son had caught the night before. He said he was going to smoke it and, one Norwegian-American to another, he grinned and said almost in a whisper, “I make a real good Squarehead smoked fish.”

He found a plank and laid it across the top of another cooler. Then he walked to a third cooler and picked out two shad lying among a bunch of alewives that he had caught for bait. He put the shad on the plank and slit open their bellies. The knife made a ripping sound. “I knew I should have put an edge on this,” he said.

He extracted the roe from each fish and put them in the plastic bag. They were plump and clean, and their weight felt good in my hand. He looked at me.

“You’re getting the best stuff, right here,” Bob Gabrielson said.

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I came right over.”

He grinned again.

“It didn’t take you long, did it?”

Roe extracted from shad by the fisherman who caught them – I paid him and smiled the smile of someone who knew he was getting the best stuff.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Disappearing Fish

Two fish that once could be found in numbers beyond counting can now barely be found. I’m referring to alewives and blueback herring, relatives of the American shad which, like the shad, return each spring to spawn in local rivers. Except that they’re no longer returning in any appreciable numbers and no one really knows why.

A couple of weeks ago Rhode Island did what Connecticut and Massachusetts did a few years ago – made it illegal to catch alewives or blueback herring. Officials are hoping that a complete hands-off policy will help the fish rebound while they’re trying to figure out what’s going wrong.

The Narragansett Baykeeper has been following the issue for a few weeks, and the Providence Journal has a story today.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Reality of Renewable Energy and the Deep-Pockets Who Want to Stop Cape Wind

If you think of global warming as perhaps the greatest environmental threat, and renewable energy as the key to moderating the worst affects of global warming, then it’s hard to consider the amount of money being spent to stop the Cape Wind turbine project as anything less than shameful.

It’s also symptomatic of a refusal to acknowledge that if we’re going to pursue renewable energy for real, we’re going to have to get a lot closer to our energy sources.

The basis for my first assertion is a story in the Boston Globe over the weekend about a fundraising effort by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The basis for my second assertion is a month-old post on the Energy Outlook blog.

First,Cape Wind. Earlier this year, someone at the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound slipped up and put an internal fundraising document on the group’s website. Although it was eventually taken offline, the document made its way to the Boston Globe.

While the reporter thought it was newsworthy that fundraisers who ask potential donors for large sums of money try to be polite and flattering (the opposite is rarely successful), to me the amazing thing is just how large the sums are that a few deep-pockets have given. Here’s the first paragraph of the Globe story:

William I. Koch, the yachting enthusiast, donated $500,000. Paul Fireman, the former chief of Reebok, gave $250,000. Michael Egan, the son of the founder of EMC Corp., kicked in $150,000.

While it may be true that some people who want to stop Cape Wind are concerned with the potential of the turbines to damage traditional fisheries in Nantucket Sound or to kill migrating birds, I doubt that those concerns are what keep Koch and Fireman and Egan awake at night. I’d be surprised if they were worried about much more than the view from their houses.

Views are important, as are fishermen and birds. But, when presented with projects that will help moderate the affects of global warming, some traditional environmental concerns might have to go to tha back of the line. Which brings me to my second point. Renewable energy isn’t like burning coal or LNG, or drilling for oil, or generating nuclear power. It requires smaller decentralized generating facilities, not large, widely-scattered mines and wells and power plants. In other words, it probably will require us to accept energy-generating facilities in our neighborhoods.

As I said, I’m borrowing this argument from the Energy Outlook blog and its author, Geoffrey Styles. He wrote an eye-opening post about a month ago that succinctly explains the point:

… part of the problem here arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of renewable energy. In a nutshell, the inherent properties of fossil fuels have spoiled us and made it difficult to grasp the compromises associated with other energy sources. …

We're accustomed to sourcing our energy far from where most of us live, in oil fields, gas wells and coal mines all over the world--but typically distant from urban concentrations. The portion we're used to seeing around us is just distribution infrastructure--power lines, gas stations, and the occasional pipeline or refinery. Renewable energy on a large scale will change that situation utterly. We will go from a world of energy-at-a-distance to energy-all-around-us.

… If we wanted [wind] to replace all of the fossil fuels used in US power generation, it would require over 300,000 of these [wind turbine] installations.

… Nor am I singling out wind. Do the math for solar, geothermal, wave power, or anything else you like, and you'll see that, to have a material impact at the scale the human race uses energy, we will need lots of them, everywhere….

Now, you might read this as an attempt to make renewable energy look impossible, or at least extremely unattractive. Far from it. It's meant as a reality check. Opting to make renewables a major part of our future energy supply requires setting aside our tender sensibilities and being confronted on a daily basis with the real-world foundation of the energy-consuming pyramid atop which we sit. Unless, of course, the goal is only enough renewable energy to make us feel good, but not enough to matter.

It’s hard for the wealthy to set aside their tender sensibilities. They worked hard, they can afford the luxury of an extravagant house, so why should they be forced to look at something unpleasant? Why should they cut back on their energy use? They didn’t make a lot of money so they can make sacrifices. The McMansions of New Canaan and Greenwich, with their 10,000-square-feet of living space that needs to be heated and cooled, and their half-acre of lawn that needs to be mowed and leaf-blowed and fertilized, are filled with people who consider themselves environmentalists. So are the islands off Cape Cod. But there are better ways to give away money than to stop a renewable energy project.
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