Flushing toilets on Cape Cod: Report shows waters increasingly polluted
Cape Cod Times
By: Heather McCarron
February 22, 2023
At one time, shellfishing was plentiful and diverse in Hen Cove Harbor on Buzzards Bay in Bourne. But that’s changed over time with an overall decline in water quality because of high concentrations of nutrients — mostly from septic systems — making their way into coastal water bodies.
“My wife and I go out to the outer part of Hen Cove to shellfish. We can only get quahogs now. We can’t get soft shell clams anymore,” Keith Barber, president of Pocasset Water Quality Coalition, said in a recent interview.
The same holds true for bay scallops, which nobody is bringing home for dinner these days — the eelgrass they rely on for protection is gone, smothered by nutrient-loving seaweeds.
Hen Cove’s story is not unique.
It’s a story of environmental distress and decline with new chapters unfolding all over the peninsula. This is borne out in the Association to Preserve Cape Cod’s newly released Annual State of the Waters: Cape Cod report, which found that the number of Cape Cod coastal embayments with unacceptable water quality is increasing.
Additionally, according to the report, a number of freshwater ponds failed to meet water quality standards, and more frequently develop cyanobacteria blooms that can impact the health of humans and wildlife alike.
It’s not all bad news, though.
The report also graded most public drinking water supplies as “excellent.” That’s because “there’s been a fairly broad consensus around zoning to protect the land around wellheads from harmful development,” said Association to Preserve Cape Cod Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb.
Septic systems are doing the most damage.
What communities have not been so good at is controlling the flow of nutrients, like nitrogen, into the Cape’s estuaries, bays, streams and ponds. What’s bothersome, Gottlieb said, is it’s been generally known since the mid- to late-1980s that nitrogen loading was causing water quality and environmental degradation.
More concerted efforts to get a handle on the problem are arising now, as “people are starting to realize there’s a little bit of killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Gottlieb said.
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The Association to Protect Cape Cod began assessing water quality four years ago in order to raise public awareness about the issue, as well as to “motivate policy makers to adopt measures that will improve water quality.”
Gottlieb said the primary source of nutrients adversely affecting embayments and ponds is inadequately treated wastewater from septic systems. Stormwater runoff and fertilizers also contribute, though to a much lesser extent, he said.
The problem is getting worse.
Pointing at the most recent results, Gottlieb said, “the sad reality is that no embayment on the Nantucket Sound side of Cape Cod and only one on the west-facing side has acceptable water quality” — that one exception is Quissett Harbor in Falmouth.
In 2022, the number of embayments with “unacceptable” water quality increased to 43, representing 90% of the 48 embayments that were evaluated. In 2021, 41 out of 47 (87%) were graded “unacceptable,” compared to 38 out of 48 (79%) in 2020, and 32 out of 47 (68%) in 2019. Cape Cod Bay continued to have the largest number of acceptable grades, although water quality in the Pamet River embayment in Truro dropped to unacceptable.
Among the most severely impacted embayments, Gottlieb said, are Popponessett Bay, Waquoit Bay, Three Bays, Hyannis Harbor and Bass River. Overall, though, he said it’s difficult to rank the embayments “because it’s kind of a pass-fail sort of system.”
“They’re all lousy, they’re all atrocious,” he said.
More than half of Cape Cod ponds evaluated failed water quality tests.
In 2022, 151 ponds were evaluated, chosen because they had enough water quality and cyanobacteria data to allow for grading. Gottlieb noted there are 890 ponds on the Cape, most of which are not routinely monitored.
Fifty-nine of the ponds (39%) were determined to have unacceptable water quality. In 2021, 35% of graded ponds had unacceptable water quality, compared to 42% in 2020 and 39% in 2019.
“The data clearly shows that freshwater ponds are being degraded by nutrients from septic systems and lawn care practices. Limiting nutrient loading of ponds has to become a higher priority for towns and homeowners,” said Gottlieb. “Towns must include lakes in their sewer expansion programs sooner rather than later, and homeowners really have to stop fertilizing their lawns and restore shoreline native plantings. A green lawn gets you a green pond, and is that worth it?”
Most public drinking water supplies are graded ‘excellent.’
When it comes to public water supplies, Gottlieb said most are meeting all state and federal drinking water standards. All 20 systems were graded using 2021 Consumer Confidence Reports. Of those, 16 got an “excellent” grade for meeting all standards.
Two public water supplies — the Buzzards Bay Water District and the Wellfleet Municipal Water System — got “good” grades based on detection of total coliform bacteria, but “both suppliers followed up with appropriate response measures and did not detect E. coli.”
Two public water supplies got “poor” grades because of violations of two or more drinking water standards and several violations at different locations: Otis Air National Guard, with a detection of total coliform and E. coli that required issuance of a boil order, and the Yarmouth Water Department, with detections of enterococci and levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that exceeded state standards for six PFAS compounds known as PFAS6.
PFAS in drinking water get state attention through regulation.
PFAS are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a “group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.”
The report’s findings reflect the first year that new state regulations began limiting PFAS6 concentrations in drinking water. While PFAS6 was detected in 11 systems, 10 of them met the new state standard. The exception was Yarmouth, where PFAS6 exceeded the limit.
Overall, Gottlieb said, the report’s findings on public water supplies are “really a validation of how proactively managing water resources gives you good results.”
What happens next?
Gottlieb said the time to begin taking solid steps toward fixing the problems is now, especially considering the time needed to develop plans, finance them and see them through.
“It takes a while to build, and it takes a while to heal,” he said. “Unfortunately, not enough towns have started.”
Barnstable Clean Water Coalition Executive Director Zenas Crocker, who called the results “not surprising,” said the water quality assessments are “really very important work.
“How do we take the work to the next level?” he said, of next steps.
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In his opinion, there needs to be a multi-pronged approach by various organizations coupled with municipal efforts. Solutions should be targeted to the different situations, he said. For example, flow of nutrient-rich water into Three Bays could start to be addressed by restoring former cranberry bogs around Marstons Mills to wetlands, which could reduce nitrogen loading by as much as 40%, he said.
Crocker said everyone needs to prioritize, and for him that means first addressing those situations that are putting nutrients into the bays more quickly, such as fast-flowing rivers as opposed to slow-moving groundwater.
“We need to resolve things as quickly as possible and understand what works and what doesn’t,” Crocker said.
Fixing the problem is expensive. Doing nothing could cost more.
While Gottlieb acknowledged fixing things is an expensive prospect, “it’s vastly more expensive to leave it alone,” leading to further degradation of the qualities that make Cape Cod what it is, further negative impacts on wildlife and marine life, and loss of economic value the Cape’s inhabitants rely on.
Action needs to be stepped up now if there are hopes of seeing improvement in the next 20 to 30 years, he said, noting “that is neither rushed nor overly aggressive.”
“You can’t do it all at once and phasing is a reasonable thing to allow, but it has to come with some reasonable deadlines, or not only am I not going to live to see this, my children aren’t going to be able to, either.”
Find the full report, including interactive maps with water quality scores for embayments, ponds and drinking water, an action plan for improving water quality, an Atlas of Water Restoration Needs and Solutions and a fact sheet on PFAS at capecodwaters.org.