More on Sea Grant, Coastlines and Their Hypoxia Conclusion
Is that money being well-spent? I think it is but I readily acknowledge that it’s hard to tell for sure right now. One thing I’m confident of however is that New York Sea Grant was wrong when it asserted in its Coastlines magazine that there’s already significant evidence that spending money on nitrogen reduction won’t solve the hypoxia problem.
The details of the Coastlines assertion are in a post from Monday, and in another post in which Jack Mattice, Sea Grant’s executive director, responded to my critique. The gist of it is that research (funded by Sea Grant) by two scientists from SUNY Stony Brook (Larry Swanson and Bob Wilson) indicates that because nitrogen entering the Sound has already been reduced by 31 percent, and because hypoxia hasn’t eased by a similar amount, the nitrogen reduction program is not going to work.
It’s a flawed conclusion, but it’s an important one because Sea Grant has been a participant in the Long Island Sound Study and cleanup for years, and because Mattice and Swanson are both members of the LISS management committee, which oversees the day to day work of the Long Island Sound program. There’s a presumption therefore that they know what they’re talking about and that people will listen to them
(Before I continue, I should add that I’m not sure how the Sea Grant researchers came up with 31 percent figure for nitrogen reduction. An EPA report called Sound Health, released last spring, said that nitrogen has been reduced by 24 percent. In an email to me, Mattice cited a letter to the editor of the Times that Swanson and Wilson published a year ago, but as far as I know their work hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, although I was told that it has been submitted.)
I asked two people involved in the Long Island Sound program what they thought of the Sea Grant/Swanson-Watson conclusion. Clearly these two people (Mark Tedesco, the director of EPA’s Long Island Sound office, and another person who asked me to keep his name out of it) are vested in the program, and it would be astounding if they said it wasn’t likely to succeed.
But they went further than that. They said that the people overseeing the cleanup have long expected that water quality improvements would lag behind nitrogen reductions, and that it is unreasonable to expect otherwise. Tedesco drew an analogy to global warming and carbon dioxide. Global warming is upon us now, and even if we stopped all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow, global warming would continue for a long time because of the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. The Long Island Sound nitrogen problem is similar: if we reduce nitrogen now, there still will be a lag time before we see the results.
The Long Island Sound program and cleanup is based on a target nitrogen reduction of 58.5 percent by 2014. So whether the nitrogen reduction is 31 percent or 24 percent, the program is barely halfway toward its goal. And that’s not enough to result in a corresponding increase in water quality.
Here’s what one of the Sound program managers told me: “I wouldn't really expect the Sound to respond as Jack and Larry suggest, i.e., a short-term load reduction observed in a rebound of oxygen loads. There's a lot of natural variability and natural effects on hypoxia severity that can't easily be sorted out in a three-year period. Plus there is a ‘memory’ in the Sound's sediments that affects recovery.”
Tedesco said the same thing: “No one expected that you’d turn off the flow and the next summer you’d see an immediate improvement in dissolved oxygen levels.”
He recalled a workshop in 1990 at which computer modelers and scientists estimated that once the nitrogen reduction goal was reached, it would still take five or six years at least to see the concomitant response in dissolved oxygen concentrations.
In his email to me, Jack Mattice went even further than saying that the 58.5 percent goal is inadequate. He said Swanson and Wilson conclude “that even stopping all sewage inputs to the sound will not eliminate the hypoxia problem.”
This brings me back to one of my original questions: If Swanson and Mattice believe that eliminating all sewage inputs to the Sound (which is never going to happen) will not end hypoxia, and therefore that ending some sewage inputs to the Sound (which is going to happen) will not end hypoxia either, have they communicated that to the people who are making the decisions about the Long Island Sound cleanup?
If reducing sewage will not eliminate hypoxia, do they believe that reducing sewage will ease the affects of hypoxia enough to make it worthwhile? Should we be doing more? Or should we give up? If we give up, how bad will conditions be on the Sound compared to what they will be if we continue? Mattice and Swanson, after all, are on the management committee. Swanson conducted the research and Mattice paid for it and published a summary of it in his magazine. You would think the management committee would be interested in knowing their conclusions.