What is Long Island Sound Worth?

Students from Sacred Heart University planted cordgrass in front of concrete reef balls in June 2014 at a former gun club in Stratford, CT. The reef balls are designed to reduce the energy of waves hitting the coast during severe storms, therefore protecting the newly restored habitat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hey, it’s National Estuaries Week (September 20 - 27, 2014). It’s the perfect time to learn more about estuaries and visit your local bay.

Once called the “American Mediterranean” and more recently described as “The Urban Sea,” Long Island Sound is considered one of North America’s most urban yet biologically diverse estuaries. More than nine million people live within the watershed area that drains into the Sound, and at 1,320 square miles in area, the Sound is an enormously valuable asset to, and a crucial economic driver of the New York metropolitan region and the nation. Among the economically valued goods and services the Sound provides are flood and storm protection, water filtration, climate stability, waste treatment, wildlife habitat, medicinal resources, food, shipping and marine transportation, recreation, tourism and real estate…just to name a few. 

But just how valuable is Long Island Sound?

The Sound generates between $17 billion and $36.6 billion in economic value every year, according to a forthcoming economic valuation cited in the recently updated plan to restore and protect Long Island Sound. Based on these figures, over a lifespan of 100 years, the value of Long Island Sound and its watersheds is $690 billion to $1.3 trillion.

As the new Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) explains, while built systems depreciate over time, “natural assets often accumulate value over time, particularly if they are protected and restored.” These natural systems also support jobs. According to the plan, approximately 191,000 direct and indirect jobs in the metropolitan region stem from the “healthy function of these natural systems, and the associated stewardship work.”

The updated CCMP, issued by the Long Island Sound Study on September 8, explains that “the ecological health of Long Island Sound and the waters that drain into it are inextricably tied to the health of the region’s economy.” While it may seem unusual to put a price tag on these natural systems, “this valuation highlights the nexus between the health of the environment, the quality of life for Sound residents, and a vibrant economy,” says Mark Tedesco, director of the US Environmental Protection Agency Long Island Sound Office.

As was the case twenty years ago (flashback to the 1994 CCMP), the “priority problems” impacting water quality today include low dissolved oxygen (hypoxia), harmful algae blooms, toxic contamination, pathogens, floating debris and land use and development. In addition, agriculture and industry as well as urban, suburban and rural, residential development all contribute to water quality problems – and harm to aquatic habitat and wildlife – to varying degrees.

Water quality and habitat degradation issues are caused by runoff polluted by fertilizers, pesticides and pet waste, sewage contamination from residential septic systems and combined stormwater and sewer overflows, which can send untreated wastewater into the estuary after heavy rainfall. Global warming effects also impact water quality and habitat.

Although a great deal of progress has been made over the last two decades, the Sound “still suffers from hypoxic dead-zones, beach closures, and other effects of contamination” that keeps it from meeting water quality standards.

To confront these challenges, the new plan is built around four major themes and corresponding goals:

  1. Clean Waters and Healthy Watersheds – Improve the Sound’s water quality by reducing contaminant and nutrient pollution on land and water.
  2. Thriving Habitats and Abundant Wildlife – Restore and protect the Sound’s ecological health, productivity, and resilience for the benefit of both people and the natural environment.
  3. Sustainable and Resilient Communities – Encourage vibrant, informed, and engaged communities that appreciate and help protect the Sound while benefiting from its goods and services.
  4. Sound Science and Inclusive Management – Manage the Sound’s resources using good science and cross-jurisdictional governance that is inclusive, adaptive, innovative and accountable.

The plan underscores the need for investments in watershed and wetland protection and restoration, and it reminds us we can’t take our vital water resources for granted. According to Tedesco, “that means beaches open for summer fun, increased areas for shellfish harvesting, rivers open for ocean-going fish to return to spawn and wetlands and eelgrass that nurse living resources and protect coastal communities from storms…just a few of the tangible benefits to the social, recreational, and commercial uses of the Sound.”

In order for Long Island Sound to continue as an economic driver for the New York metropolitan region, it will need continued commitments of federal, state and local funding. It’s a sound investment worthy of one of the nation’s greatest waterways.


Wondering what you can do to protect the Long Island Sound and the surrounding watershed?

Here are some ideas, courtesy of the Long Island Sound Study. Many of these actions apply no matter which watershed you live in.

What is the Long Island Sound Study?
Sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Connecticut and New York, the Long Island Sound Study is a partnership of federal, state, and local agencies, universities, businesses and environmental and community groups with a mission to restore and protect the Long Island Sound.