Making the Grade: Clean Water Proponents Issue Report Card for Long Island Sound

Throughout the U.S., our waterways face a wide variety of threats, including excess nitrogen from farms, suburbs and cities, toxic algal blooms, failing septic systems, litter, power plant water pollution and climate change. To confront these challenges, clean water proponents, government officials, communities and scientists use a number of different tactics and tools to increase awareness of these threats and bring about improvements in ecological health. A report card -- like the one recently released for the Long Island Sound -- is one clever course to take.

This inaugural report card for the Long Island Sound, dubbed "The Urban Sea," includes a range of grades, from an "A" for "very good" water quality in Eastern Long Island Sound to an "F" for "very poor" water quality in the shallow Western Narrows, which neighbors New York City. The report card grades the subregions of the Sound on several water quality indicators -- dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, water clarity and chlorophyll a -- which combine to make a score and then a grade. But it's not all about letters -- there is also a non-graded section that includes indicators for shellfish, finfish, piping plover, eelgrass and bacteria that are not included in the overall score, but that can be browsed by region.

This report card was produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's (UMCES) Integration and Application Network (yeah, that's a name only a policy wonk's mom could love) which is a pioneer in creating scientifically-based report cards in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. "By creating this scientifically-based report card process, we can track our progress in protecting and restoring Long Island Sound and other waterways," said Bill Dennison at the UMCES, who led the report card effort.

Like parents reviewing their kids' report cards, politicians pay attention to grades. "This report card makes it clear that while progress has been made to improve the water quality of the Sound, more must be done to preserve this economic engine and local treasure's waters and coastline," said New York Congressman Steve Israel, whose priorities in Congress have always included the preservation and protection of the Sound.

Report cards also resonate with the general public because people want to know what they can do to improve the health of their local or regional waterway -- and their grade. The Long Island Sound report card suggests several actions, like pumping out home septic systems every three to five years and eliminating or reducing fertilizer use. In addition, Hugh Killin III, executive director of the Jeniam Foundation, a small family foundation based in Connecticut that focuses largely on conservation, and chairperson of the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative (LISFC), suggests that people "can support their local embayment or watershed group by writing a check and volunteering to help with clean up and water quality monitoring." The LISFC supported development of the report card, Killin said, because it would be effective in guiding "actions we can take individually and as communities, across the region and in our own backyards, to improve the health of the sound."

"While the report card is a science-based tool, it communicates in non-scientific terms, so that it can be understood by anyone," said Marian Conway, Ph.D., executive director for the New York Community Bank Foundation, which supported the report card project and is part of the LISFC. "It can help every individual in any community to value their water, it provides positive confirmation that previous actions have met with success and it gives a community insight into where further improvements are needed."

It is dedicated and thoughtful action by government, individuals and communities that will be crucial to overcoming the many challenges that confront Long Island Sound and many other bodies of water. The report card format is a smart step forward in the process of preserving our waterways.

Originally published at Ecocentric.