STONINGTON — Water quality in the Eastern Basin of Long Island Sound receives generally high marks for cleanliness and health in a 2020 report by Save the Sound, but for one glaring exception on the far eastern end of the Sound.
Wequetequock Cove, the exception, earned an overall D-minus grade from the environmental nonprofit, compared to the nearby Mystic River, which earned a B, and Mystic Harbor which earned an A.
That has some local residents searching for answers.
The poor water quality is a significant concern for Paul Goetz, a third-generation resident of Wequetequock Cove, who is pointing a finger at the neighborhood’s aging septic systems.
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“We’re the only segment of Route 1 without city water and sewer,” said Goetz, who also owns Stonington Marina, “It goes back to 2008, when the town decided not to invest in infrastructure in [Wequetequock Village].”
The village, considered the oldest in Stonington, is bracketed by city sewer and water infrastructure on either side, leaving Wequetequock residents and businesses to rely on septic and wells.
Goetz and a group of residents and businesses are asking whether the town could extend the sewer lines for the health of the cove.
But Daniel Smith, director of the Water Pollution Control Authority for the town, told CT Examiner that the Wequetequock area is not designated for sewer infrastructure on town maps.
“We have no plans to extend the sewer. That section is not even designated as a sewer district. DEEP would have to extend the sewer area,” said Smith. Nearby areas are served by Aquarion Water Company and Westerly Water.
The cove has been listed as “impaired for its designated uses, which include habitat for fish, other aquatic life and wildlife, recreation and the direct consumption of shellfish,” by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, according to the Anguilla Brook Watershed Plan.
“Suspected causes include enterococcus, algae and estuarine bioassessments related to illicit discharges, failing septic systems, marinas, stormwater runoff and nuisance wildlife/pets,” according to the plan.
Goetz said, “We’re not even on the map and yet we’re the most polluted waterway around here.”
Another factor likely contributing to the compromised water quality is a water flow restriction created by the low railroad bridge at the bottom of the cove.
Tom Valyo has been renting one of the tiny candy-colored fishing cottages in Wequetequock Village for many years. He said the decline of the water quality has been noticeable for at least the last 15 years, which he attributed partly to the small opening under bridge.
“That’s choked off the flow. It really needs flow, shy of someone giving it a good dredging, which no one wants to do because it’s shallow, it’s just sediment that’s built up because of that bridge,” he said. “But if we could get a good wash coming down here it would go a long way not only in bringing fish back but it would help clean the water because an outgoing tide takes a lot of junk with it.”
Valyo said the cove does not have clams or oysters filtering the water anymore.
“There’s nothing, but not two miles from here there’s oysters, there’s fish, so it’s an area where stuff is just trapped. You know, our ocean is fairly healthy, our fishing is as good as it’s ever been.”
Peter Linderoth, director of water quality for Save the Sound said the compromised water quality in the cove is indicative of excessive nitrogen loads.
“These local bays tend to be impacted by local sources of pollutants more than open water,” he said. “The railroad bridge and the restricted waterway exacerbates the problem because it creates limited flushing.” And, he said, the cove has mats of nutrient-loving seaweed that create oxygen levels that are detrimental to aquatic life.
Linderoth said that steps could be taken to improve water quality. “If they reduce nitrogen from various sources and open up the flushing restriction, the cove could benefit.”
He said new Long Island Report Card with data on Wequetequock Cove will be available in mid-November.
‘Probably a 20- or 30-year battle ahead’
Goetz said he believes the problem of extending sewers into Wequetequock can be traced to 2007 and 2008 when infrastructure was discussed for a Route 1 corridor study, where Stonington residents expressed concerns about “potential intensity of growth permitted by the commercial zones in the Wequetequock,”
“There are two memes: the residents don’t support it and there’s a fear of big box stores,” Goetz said. “This is a persistent meme – and it’s nobody here – that was said back in 2007.”
Alice Conger, who has lived across from the cove for 37 years said she remembered when there was talk of putting in water and sewer in 2008.
“The myth is we all opposed it,” she said. “We saw them coming up from the Westerly area – and, oh good, we’re finally going to get some services. But where the Wequetequock signs are, nothing ever came past that. It went down Greenhaven Road but it never came down this way and we often wondered why,” said Conger.
Conger said the water quality has decreased noticeably over the years.
“The only thing I know is that big bloom of gloopy algae – you have to make sure it doesn’t plug up your engine,” she said. “I don’t go in that water – it’s kind of gross over there.”
Caity Serra said she and her husband bought their property on the cove about six and a half years ago and want to pass down the property to their children as their family home but they are concerned about the ecological health of the waterway.
“We absolutely love it here. We fell in love with it as soon as we saw the property. We are water people through and through. We spent a lot of time at the beach, on the boat, paddleboarding on the cove, fishing, crabbing – all of the possible activities,” Serra said.
She said the quality of the water is “quite concerning.”
“We’ve heard the stories of how nice it used to be and how people used to swim in there – now the thought of even one of my kids falling into the cove or falling off the paddleboard when they’re playing around is a little heebee-jeebee, so that’s definitely top of mind for us.”
She said she has two septic systems on her property and her family is taking steps to be careful about not polluting the cove by not using chemical treatments on the lawn.
“We are very careful about just anything environmentally on our property, but there’s so many other variables but beyond our small piece of the pie here that we’re just concerned kind of what the long run looks like with not having access to town sewer town water, and having the continual decline of the quality of the cove here,” she said.
She said she is hoping the town and neighbors of the cove can be part of a plan to increase the health of the cove, including connecting to water and sewer.
“I said that to my husband the other day – it’s probably a 20- or 30-year battle that we have ahead of us,” she said.