My View: Peers and Piers
The Barnstable Patriot
Published: 7:01 a.m. ET Feb. 11, 2021 Updated: 7:02 a.m. ET Feb. 11, 2021
Barnstable Clean Water Coalition’s (BCWC) work is all about improving water quality on Cape Cod. Piers or docks have an important, albeit controversial, role to play regarding water quality in our saltwater bays. Are docks good or bad? The answer really is not as straightforward as many believe. Let’s take a look at a few parts of the conversation.
First, docks tend to be a wealthy person’s privilege which, in our view, should also come with a certain level of responsibility. “Do no (or little) harm” should be at the top of this list. Many people believe that docks are harmful to shellfish due to habitat destruction.
“Prop wash” from motorboats is the main culprit. Is this really the case? We are not so sure. Our firsthand observations are that both commercial and recreational shell fishermen tend to stay away from the areas around and underneath docks, which become a refuge for shellfish.
It is worth noting that in the Chesapeake Bay, dock owners are encouraged, sometimes mandated, to grow oysters under their docks; there is even an Oyster Gardening program encouraging dock owners to grow oysters, both to help recover the oyster population and support better water quality.
We plan to fund a scientific study in the Three Bays estuary in Barnstable to look at this question and get a better answer. Since our bays are recreational areas and boats are here to stay, are there other considerations? One might be to balance the relative damage we do to the bottom with our boats.
What about moorings? A dock has a discrete footprint, whereas a mooring, at least the ones in general use, scour a much more substantial area. A heavy chain is dragged in a circle destroying all plants and shellfish in that zone. In fact, each mooring may do more damage than multiple docks. We intend to study this as well and report back.
In the meantime, new less destructive moorings are readily available that should be mandated and deployed. BCWC has received a lot of questions about our conditional support for a proposed pier in Cotuit. This pier needs zoning approval from the town, which may render our support moot by the time you read this. The zoning question is not something we will weigh in on. However, if zoning is approved, then the reasons for our support become relevant.
First, the owner has committed to installing two new enhanced septic systems on their property, which remove as much as 95% of the nitrogen that septic systems usually discharge (nitrogen is the major contaminant in Cotuit Bay). The Cape Cod Commission estimates that 80% of the nitrogen problem on Cape Cod is due to our current title 5 septic systems, which do little to remove nutrients.
Next, the homeowner has offered to provide an easement for a bathroom and office at the Cotuit Town Dock, which abuts his property. The nitrogen destroying our waters comes from our urine. Hopefully, people would use this bathroom, which would replace the porta potties that in the past have been dumped over, allowing their contents to run into the water.
The proposal also includes removing a 3,300 sq. ft. revetment, adding native plants (whose die-off is a major sign of how badly our waters have declined), and adding a sandy beach. The owner has offered to replace a significant number of the moorings with the new ones mentioned above and to fund the restoration of a sizable area of the bay’s bottom to determine if growing eel grass and native shellfish is feasible. This pilot project would be expensive and complicated, but it would help us develop a longer-term roadmap for the restoration of other bays.
Gooey muck would need to be removed, and the permitting process would be arduous and costly. The proposed dock would accommodate the Cotuit Fire and Rescue boat, along with one of BCWC’s water quality monitoring boats. A generous offer, but we would support the project anyway for the reasons already stated.
For the Town of Barnstable, each pier represents a significant increase in assessed value, perhaps $500,000 or even $1 million. With the Town about to embark on a major wastewater project, every assessed dollar counts.
Overall, this single dock would support the Town, our fire department, BCWC, and anyone using the Town dock and restroom. On top of that, the installation would include funding to support the study and restoration of our bay, potentially creating a blueprint for other waterways.
Homeowners already pay for their docks with higher taxes. But two local shell fishermen have suggested that homeowners could do even more by contributing to a new special fund, like our Community Preservation Fund, that would be targeted for our waterways. We agree. What do you think?
The author is CEO of the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, a nonprofit working to restore and preserve clean water in Barnstable. This is the second in a three-part series.