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Wastewater Challenge on Cape Cod

Over time, nitrogen discharges from septic systems into the groundwater and travels slowly to the coastal embayments. This has resulted in water quality problems (state establishes standards), sea grass bed loss and the associated aquatic biota (like bay scallops), fish kills from low oxygen conditions in the bottom waters as excess plant material decays, and aesthetic issues.

Since the quality of our coastal waters is important to fishing, tourism, and the sense of place amongst residents, it is important to meet this challenge in an expeditious fashion. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Southeastern Massachusetts Estuary Project has established nitrogen loading targets (total maximum daily loads or TMDLs) for the coastal water bodies on Cape Cod. It is up to each town to develop a plan to meet these targets by reducing the nitrogen loading from septic systems and fertilizer usage within their boundaries. One of the primary tools in this endeavor will be sewering and construction of a centralized treatment plant, either town-wide or in the densely populated areas adjacent to these saltwater bodies. The political challenge involves finding ways to fund these large public infrastructure costs, even though it is clear that most of the cost will be borne by the residents. There will be private costs to homeowners in order to re-route pipes in their basements from their septic systems to the streets in order to connect to the sewers.

Each town or groups of towns that border a coastal water body will need to develop a plan to meet the state TMDL requirements. It is unclear at this time what the Mass. DEP regulatory requirements will be to complete this planning process and begin implementation. Given the large cost of these infrastructure improvements (hundreds of millions of dollars), the County Wastewater Collaborative is exploring funding options from the state revolving loans to grants from the state or private foundations.

The Cape Cod Group would like to develop activists in each town to follow this planning process to see where we can help the towns meet their wastewater challenge. We will lobby local/state/federal officials to move forward expeditiously to address this problem and find ways to implement the plans with a variety of funding mechanisms. Given that there is a lot of nitrogen in the groundwater upgradient from the coastal bays and the sediments within our coastal waters have high nitrogen levels, it will take time to see improvements in water quality and recovery of the natural plant and animal populations. As these nitrogen reduction plans are being implemented, one is likely to see improved water clarity as an early indicator of change. Now is the time to start, so that we can protect one of the things that makes Cape Cod a special place. To contribute to our in our work in helping towns address this issue, please contact David Dow (see contacts page for contact information.)

Update: August 2010

The County government and nine Cape Cod towns have asked our Congressional representatives to obtain a $ 500-600K appropriation. This would be used to fund a National Academy of Science's peer-review of the Massachusetts Estuary's project's model on which DEP computes to nitrogen loading reductions (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for each watershed on Cape Cod.

This will slow down the wastewater infrastructure upgrade process and probably delay the release of the 50% of the watershed nutrient loading reports from the School of Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at UMass-Dartmouth that have not been provided to the effected Cape Cod towns. The SMAST reports for the Massachusetts. Estuaries Project have not received independent scientific review of its model which bothers town decision makers who have to ask the public for $3-6 billion over 30 years to fund the wastewater infrastructure upgrade.

Modeling efforts elsewhere on predicting the recovery potential of water quality and key habitats in coastal embayments following nitrogen loading reductions from human activities in coastal watersheds have shown poor results. This would devote this proposed money to improved coastal monitoring programs and establishing adaptive management regimes to offer mid-course correction to the town water infrastructure upgrade approaches. Many of the towns will pursue multi-phase implementation strategies for sewering and construction of advanced, centralized treatment plants, so that mid-course corrections are a feasible option. Other issues that require addressing are: removal of the nutrient phosphorus; eliminating contaminants of emerging concern in the treated sewage effluent before it is discharged back into our sole source aquifer for drinking water; removal of toxic sediments in embayments and replanting eelgrass shoots to establish beds which are key habitats for wildlife, and so on.


See Also
Cape Cod & Islands Group homepage

Update: Aug 2010


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