Latest from Leah: Celebrating the Last 50 Years & Transforming the Next
Message from the new Save the Sound President
This fall marks a transition for Save the Sound—a time to reflect on our journey, celebrate our accomplishments together, and look to the future.
From Staff Attorney to President
I started my journey at Save the Sound in 2001, working on a regional approach to slashing the nitrogen that was suffocating our waters. Over the two decades since, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in every corner of this organization, serving as staff attorney; director of legislative and legal affairs; program director for our land, climate, and legislative initiatives; and vice president of programs. On October 1, 2022, I had the great pleasure of stepping into the role of president. I’ve dedicated my career to Save the Sound because I care deeply about its mission and because I am continually inspired by our people and the results we achieve together.
50 Years of Accomplishments
I’ve been fortunate to work alongside incredible partner organizations, elected
officials, and Save the Sound teammates.
A few of our transformative projects over the years have been:
• defeating Shell Oil’s ill-conceived Broadwater project;
• creating a groundswell of advocates to protect Plum Island, NY;
• launching Save the Sound’s neighborhood-based green infrastructure program;
• leading the diverse, bi-partisan coalition that secured $3 billion of investment in Connecticut sewage infrastructure upgrades.
Transforming the Future
Our vision is that by 2027 we will engage 10,000 new voices to protect 12,500 acres of New York and Connecticut endangered open space, coastline, and water company land, and dozens of bays and harbors, from sewage and plastics using our data-to action-model; restore at least six river systems by implementing on-the-ground projects
that will revive historic fish runs and make communities safer and more resilient; and transform the economy through carbon pricing that reduces global warming pollution and re-invests proceeds into overburdened and underserved neighborhoods. We will defend against polluters, arm the public with information, and support cities facing environmental injustice by strengthening laws and activating people power.
Save the Sound is a community of actionoriented staff, volunteers, supporters, partner organizations, and elected officials steadfastly transforming this region. Thank you for standing alongside us for 50 years. Let’s step boldly into this new and exciting moment, together.Leah Lopez Schmalz President, Save the Sound
Stopping Stormwater Pollution in Connecticut
Redding and Ridgefield federal lawsuits settled
What comes to mind when you think of water pollution? A pipe oozing glowing green goo? In reality, the biggest driver of water pollution is much more mundane— and much harder to stop. Stormwater has made over a thousand miles of rivers flowing into Long Island Sound unsuitable for fishing or swimming, and unable to support healthy aquatic ecosystems. When stormwater can’t be absorbed into soil, it flows across the ground into rivers and lakes, carrying with it bacteria, excess nutrients, oils, chemicals, salts, and plastics. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) requires municipalities to reduce stormwater pollution by, among other things, following best practices when managing town property, mapping their stormwater systems, and reducing the area
of impermeable surfaces that drain directly into local waterbodies.
Unfortunately, many towns and cities have neglected some or most of these requirements and do not file their annual reports with DEEP. As part of our efforts to reduce stormwater pollution, Save the Sound’s legal team has begun to enforce these stormwater requirements through the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provisions. We filed four federal lawsuits in December 2021 against the Connecticut municipalities of Burlington, Middletown, Redding, and Ridgefield. In September, we announced that the Redding and Ridgefield lawsuits have settled, pending review by federal authorities. Both towns have agreed to comply with all of their stormwater requirements under detailed
schedules and contribute $70,000 each to nonprofits for projects that will benefit water quality in the Norwalk River.
In addition to holding municipalities legally accountable, our approach to reducing stormwater pollution includes: on-the-ground design and engineering of neighborhood rain gardens; regulatory efforts to ensure strong stormwater permitting; education on the importance of curbing stormwater pollution; and legislative advocacy to provide municipalities with the tools and funding they need to upgrade their systems. That includes creation of stormwater utilities, which allow municipalities to charge service fees for required work to meet Clean Water Act requirements while disincentivizing impervious surfaces.
Deer Lake Saved!
The conservation deal that happened at a remarkable pace
The 253-acre Deer Lake property in Killingworth, CT, which includes some of the state’s last remaining contiguous forest land, was purchased in September by the nonprofit organization Pathfinders from the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which had originally planned to sell the property to a real estate developer. The threatened sale for development drew the attention of local, state, and federal officials, numerous environmental organizations, and hundreds of concerned residents across the state. Pathfinders shepherded the property to a conservation solution with a remarkable grassroots fundraising campaign that exceeded the developer’s offer in just a few weeks. Protecting endangered lands often
takes years of effort, but this conservation deal sped to success at a remarkable pace!
Conserving Deer Lake will help keep intact important wildlife habitat and protect mostly undisturbed forest, capturing pollutants and cooling stream water on its way to the Sound. Deer Lake itself and numerous camp buildings on the property have been home to Boy Scout and Pathfinders summer camp programs. The property also includes the Richard English Bird Sanctuary and a segment of the state’s blue hiking trail system. “The impact of this sale will be felt statewide,” said David Anderson, then Save the Sound’s land campaigns manager. “Everyone can play a role in land conservation by demanding elected officials protect our natural resources.”
Donor Spotlight: Paul and Julie Chelminski
Restoring the Norwalk River
Paul and Julie Chelminski, who reside in East Norwalk, CT, have witnessed many changes in their community. In 1933, nearly nine decades ago, Paul moved to Wilton with his family and grew up on Ridgefield Road, across from Comstock Brook. “In my youth, I spent a lot of time with the brook swimming in the summer or trapping and fishing along the banks,” Paul recalled.
lived, and Taylors Falls, where her maternal grandparents lived. When the 1980s came around, Julie was a member of the Norwalk Shellfish Commission where she met Terry Backer, who founded Long Island Soundkeeper—now an integral part of Save the Sound.
the final barriers to migratory fish passage on the Norwalk River. Thanks to the generous support of donors like Paul and Julie Chelminski, our dam removal work continues to move forward, providing vital restoration to obstructed ecosystems.
“Supporting local institutions involved in conservation and the environment is very important,” said Paul Chelminski. “The main reason I am so interested in Save the Sound’s Dana Dam removal project is because I have always loved that brook and care deeply about its restoration.”
Julie, on the other hand, was born in Minnesota and lived there until she was 18. Growing up, she spent lots of time in the outdoors canoeing down the Saint Croix River, in particular the 28-mile stretch between Stillwater, where she
Their sons, Paul Roman Chelminski and Michael Rivard Chelminski, grew up fishing Comstock Brook and the Norwalk River. Michael was a passionate fisherman as a child and brought his love of brooks, streams, and rivers to his work as a civil engineer working on dam removal projects throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Removing obsolete dams is a long-term Save the Sound project that is critical to the health of rivers, communities, and Long Island Sound. Dana Dam, also known as Strong Pond Dam, in Wilton, CT is one of
- Paul Chelminski
Supporting local institutions involved in conservation and the environment is very important.” “Above: Deer Lake, Killingworth, CT Above: Dana Dam, Wilton, CT Above: Michael (left), Julie (center), and Paul Chelminski (right)
Save the Sound & the Clean Water Act
Celebrating 50 years of restoring Long Island Sound
The fall of 1972 was a time for inauspicious starts. Particularly on Long Island.
The New York Islanders debuted and suffered through one of the worst seasons in National Hockey League history. A young musician from Hicksville hit the road for Los Angeles, where he toiled in a piano lounge.
And on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act became law, impossibly seeking “that the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.”
Success didn’t come immediately for any of those new arrivals to the Long Island Sound scene. Billy Joel recorded his autobiographical signature song the following year, but it took nearly a decade to become a monster hit. The Islanders didn’t hit their high note until the 1980s, a decade they opened by winning four straight Stanley Cups.
And today, the Clean Water Act is 50 years into its pursuit of unpolluted waters across the country. Its work is not done. Not nearly. But the progress it has enabled over half a century is undeniable.
“The Long Island Sound would be a murky, brown, toxic mess if it had not been for the Clean Water Act,” said Curt Johnson, the recently retired president of Save the
Sound—an organization also born in 1972 as the Long Island Sound Task Force, launched to do the vital work enabled by the landmark environmental legislation.
To fully appreciate the condition of U.S. waterbodies today, you have to remember what it was like back when Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto to enact the Clean Water Act. Prominent waterways were on fire—like an oil-slicked stretch of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland in 1969—or dying, choking on decades-worth of unchecked pollution, from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay.
“There were political cartoons in the 1970s that depicted Long Island Sound as a toilet bowl,” said Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel at Save the Sound, who has spent much of his career ensuring municipalities protect their local waters and their residents in ways required by the Clean Water Act. “The Naugatuck River changed colors on different days, depending on what was being manufactured at the time.”
That’s not hyperbole. The dyes used by paper mills to color cardboard spilled into the Naugatuck and the Sound. By 1989, much of the western Sound was polluted to a devastating degree. Oxygen levels had
deteriorated from hypoxic—depleted to the point that water can become unsurvivable for fish and other aquatic life—to anoxic—no oxygen at all.
“Zero oxygen, from Bridgeport to New York City. There were dead fish everywhere. Lobster were crawling out of the water to try to breathe,” recalled Johnson. “That set off a bi-state effort with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring the Sound back. Under the Clean Water Act came a plan to do that. We would’ve lost the Sound by now if that hadn’t been done.”
A huge step in the effort to diminish the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound by 58.5 percent came in 2000 when the EPA—under the authority of the Clean Water Act—helped states establish Total Maximum Daily Loads, enforceable standards for the amount of pollutants individual waterbodies can safely tolerate.
The standards were important; the enforceability was essential. Without it, the Clean Water Act would be little more than a suggestion. Speed limits don’t dictate how fast someone drives; the prospect of being ticketed and fined does.
Backed up by the Clean Water Act, Save the Sound and other environmental
organizations, community groups, and even individuals, serve as a force of traffic cops keeping watch over the Long Island Sound watershed and all of America’s waterways. That built-in people power equips all corners of a community to combat threats.
The Clean Water Act is uniquely powerful because it requires all waters to be fishable and swimmable. Period. Hard stop. Citizens and organizations like ours can bring citizen actions to enforce the law when government administrations fail to do so.”- Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel at Save the Sound
For example, in 2015, Save the Sound was opening an office in Mamaroneck, NY, when we discovered substantial overflows of raw and partially treated sewage from undermaintained sewage treatment pipes. The problem in the Sound Shore area was extensive: more than 15,000 gallons of raw sewage and 26.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage were being discharged every year. After unsuccessful discussions to compel local municipalities to address the disrepair
in the wastewater infrastructure, we filed a lawsuit for violations of the Clean Water Act against Westchester County and 11 municipalities.
Eventually, the litigation was stayed, and we reentered collaborative discussions that resulted in:
• 532 linear miles of pipe studied
• 12,700 manholes inspected, and 661 repaired
• 46,000 defects discovered and repaired
• 6,396 sources of inflow and infiltration removed
• More than $200,000 in environmental benefits payments, which will go toward projects that benefit water quality in affected waterbodies
The Clean Water Act enables such progress, and is essential today in addressing stormwater pollution—the greatest contributor to water pollution we face today, and a problem that will only become more dangerous and damaging as water temperatures rise and heavy rain events become more frequent.
“Nobody thinks of stormwater as this big polluter. But it’s everywhere. It picks up
everything on the ground and carries it into the water,” said Chris Kelly, Peter B. Cooper Legal Fellow at Save the Sound, whose job it has been to manage the organization’s ongoing lawsuits against several Connecticut municipalities, holding them accountable to those fishable and swimmable mandates. “The Clean Water Act is both fixing the pollution problems of the past and giving us the tools to keep going in perpetuity.”
Therein lies the real reason to celebrate the Clean Water Act as it turns 50: it still works. It is as relevant and effective as ever. Without it, accountability would be a choice rather than a responsibility. Our ability to do our work would be compromised. And we would never have been successful in encouraging New York State to release criteria specifying how to make New York City waters swimmable once again.
That’s what can happen when you have a law with teeth on your side.
“The story of the Clean Water Act is a story of restoration and recovery,” said Johnson. “It’s what the planet needs. Desperately.”Above: Dead fish floating in Black Rock Harbor, Bridgeport, CT. A result of anoxic conditions. Left: A healthy school of menhaden fish. Photo credit: Matthew Scheuer, Electrona Robotics
Macroinvertebrates in Hutchinson River
Putting Mount Vernon on the Map
Marissa Glaze had experienced pollution before. She’d seen trash littering the sidewalks of her neighborhood when she first moved to Mount Vernon, NY, just as she’d seen it back in her first home of Jamaica. She couldn’t ignore discarded cans and plastic bottles wherever she walked, so many that she decided to collect all she could, stash them in garbage bags, then schlep the full bags to the supermarket and exchange her haul of recyclables for the standard deposit bounty of five cents apiece. But she had never had encountered trash in the water before. Not until it brushed up against her when she was standing in the shallows of Long Island Sound at Orchard Beach in the Bronx.
“I grew up on this beautiful island with beautiful water. There was pollution, but it was never in the water,” said Marissa, a recent graduate from the Denzel Washington School of the Arts. “Coming up here and seeing it in the water, it sparked something within me.”
That moment eventually led Marissa into a stretch of the Hutchinson River last summer where she and five other students from the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon spent hours walking two five-meter transects, collecting small organisms. They sorted and identified the macroinvertebrates they’d caught, and logged what they had found: an assortment of creatures from leeches to red midge and mosquito larvae, some freshwater clams, and sowbugs. All four organism types identified by the students are on the DEC’s Least Wanted List. Which, actually, is a good thing.
This was part of New York’s ten-year-old WAVE program (Water Assessments by Volunteer Evaluators), and began with lessons in macroinvertebrates, river ecology, water pollution, and sampling techniques, led by our Clean Water Advocate, Sam Marquand. Once a body of water is identified as potentially impaired by WAVE criteria, something can be done to address the problem.
This is the impact of community science. When the new WAVE map is released, it will have a yellow dot marking the section of the Hutchinson River traveled by the students. It could represent a first step toward healing a river badly compromised by sewage and stormwater pollution.
A Plum Opportunity
Join us to push for federal preservation of Plum Island
We’ve been working hard to save Plum Island, an ecological gem just off the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, for more than a decade, with your support. Now we’re taking our message straight to the top! Over the summer, we launched a campaign asking President Biden to proclaim Plum Island as a National Monument for the purpose of ecological conservation, historical preservation, and the discovery and celebration of our shared cultural heritage. National Monument status would bring benefits, including sustainable visitation, while at the same time protecting its biodiversity and nationally significant features through management planning, stewardship, and public-philanthropic partnerships. Visit the Preserve Plum Island Coalition website to join the campaign: www.preserveplumisland.org
Save the Sound coordinates the Preserve Plum Island Coalition of 120-member organizations. But we’re not the only ones taking action. This year Connecticut’s U.S. Senators Blumenthal and Murphy and New York’s Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have put their longtime support in writing.
So has the Long Island Regional Planning Council, every elected official in the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association on Long Island, the entire Suffolk County Legislature, and 900 Save the Sound supporters—and counting!
Plum Island is home to the largest seal haul-out site in New York, and one of the largest in southern New England, hosting up to several hundred grey and harbor seals each winter. Approximately 228 bird species have been sighted there—nearly a quarter of all known in North America, north of Mexico. Over 111 species of conservation concern have been documented on this 822-acre island. Plum Island’s coast and waters support exemplary habitats now rare for Long Island, including marine rocky intertidal shores and marine eelgrass meadows. The island is home to nationally significant artifacts and historic buildings, including the National Register of Historic Places Plum Island Lighthouse (1869) and the National Register of Historic Places Fort Terry (1897) army barracks and weapons batteries. The island also is highly valued by the local Indigenous people as part of their cultural heritage.Above: Coast of Plum Island Photo credit: Robert Lorenz
Leading on Ecological Restoration and Water Protection
Experienced talent joins Save the Sound
Meet Laura Wildman, our Regional Director of Ecological Restoration
Save the Sound welcomed internationallyrecognized restoration expert Laura Wildman as the Regional Director of the Ecological Restoration Program this past June. She will oversee our habitat restoration, green infrastructure, and resiliency project portfolio across Connecticut, Westchester County, the Bronx, Queens, and Long Island, and will create critical partnerships including advancing the Long Island Sound River Restoration Network.
“I feel like I have arrived home! To be able to apply 30+ years of applied ecological restoration knowledge to my home
watershed is just fantastic, and I am lucky enough to be leading a cracker-jack team that lets nothing stand in their way! I have witnessed firsthand the benefits that a growing environmental awareness and improved water quality have brought to this watershed since the 1970s, and it gives me so much hope for the future.”
Laura’s expertise centers on re-establishment of natural functions and aquatic connectivity to benefit native wildlife and communities. She holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Vermont and a M.S. in Environmental Management from Yale.
David Ansel Leads Save the Sound’s Regional Water Protection Team
Environmentalist and corporate attorney David P. Ansel joined Save the Sound as our Regional Director of Water Protection. David will lead our Sound-wide healthy waters initiatives, working with the water quality team to restore rivers, lakes, and harbors in the Long Island Sound watershed.
David will guide our extensive bi-state, science-based watchdog, pollution testing, and solutions programs; work with the legal team to ensure strengthened and enforced laws to protect the Sound and the rivers that feed it; and develop interactive, publicfriendly products including the Sound Health Explorer, Long Island Sound Report Card, and
Long Island Sound Beach Report.
“I feel very strongly about the burden that we’re putting on Long Island Sound and the whole planet,” said David, who spent his 30year legal career at the firms Thacher Proffitt & Wood and Loeb & Loeb. He also has served on the Subcommittee for Environmental Law of the New York City Bar Association, on the Board of Riverkeeper, and as a trustee at Waterkeeper Alliance, and sits on the Board of the Westchester Land Trust. “We’re at a critical tipping point. The work that Save the Sound does in Long Island Sound and the entire region has not only a local impact but is also part of a global solution.”
End of Natural Gas Expansion in Connecticut
And what that means for the state’s climate goals
Continuing to expand natural gas heating is not in the best interest of families and businesses and does not further Connecticut’s climate and energy goals. That was the conclusion of the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) when it issued a final decision on Docket 21-0804 earlier this year to immediately cease the state’s efforts to expand gas heating. The expansion plan originated in 2013 and was designed to convert homes and businesses from oil heating to natural gas.
At the time it was pitched as a “bridge” to a lower carbon future, but the plan has not been successful as the price of gas has increased and gas companies have struggled to attract new customers.
At the urging of Save the Sound and our allies, PURA is winding down Connecticut’s natural gas expansion plan a year-and-ahalf early. Our Climate and Energy Attorney Charles Rothenberger explains, “This docket presented an opportunity to re-examine a program that no longer serves the climate or
policy goals of Connecticut. Now the state can focus on building electrification and growing our renewable energy supply, rather than sinking resources into obsolete fossil fuel infrastructure that pollutes our air and contributes to climate change.”
This decision comes as increased national attention has been focused on methane emissions from leaks in the natural gas distribution system, as well as on indoor air quality and adverse health impacts associated with gas-fired appliances.
Eelgrass Restoration Project Update
Phase One: The Collection
Long Island Sound once was home to bountiful beds of eelgrass, a cornerstone of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Today the shallows off Fishers Island are one of the few areas on the East Coast where it still thrives. Seeds harvested from this bed by Rob Vasiluth of SAVE Environmental and Associate Soundkeeper Emma DeLoughry may restore populations where they once grew, such as in Smithtown Bay, NY.
“The amount of things eelgrass does, it’s like this miracle plant,” said Rob. Eelgrass sequesters carbon, provides food and habitat for aquatic life, combats coastal acidification and erosion, and protects against wave damage.
Save the Sound’s Blog
Follow our blog for updates and watch a video on Phase One: The Collection, produced by Emma DeLoughry with support from 11th Hour Racing.
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