‘Things are worse’: Cape Cod water quality is declining, says environmental group’s report
Cape Cod Times
Jan 11, 2022
What it found is no surprise: continued degradation of both marine and freshwater water quality, as well as issues with two municipal drinking water systems.
The report noted that, for the first time, none of the 21 marine bays and estuaries the APCC monitors along the Cape’s south-facing shoreline had acceptable water quality. For the Cape as a whole, only six of 47 bays and estuaries were rated as having acceptable water quality, while 41, or 87%, received a grading of unacceptable. Last year’s report had 38 receiving a failing grade, or 79%, and in the 2019 report, 68% failed.
Barnstable Harbor and Quivett Creek, on the Brewster-Dennis line, were newly identified in the report as having unacceptable water quality.
‘Reason to be optimistic’
“Things are worse, from an objective measurement perspective,” said Andrew Gottlieb, APCC executive director. “But, with the significant rise in (planning, funding, and building) municipal treatment plants there is reason to be optimistic that while there are residual contaminants (in groundwater) … steps to address the problem are being taken.”
Gottlieb and his organization urged municipalities to take advantage of the $1 billion from the federal $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that will go into the State Revolving Fund managed by the Massachusetts Cleanwater Trust and the Department of Environmental Protection. That money will be made available over the next five years and the feds mandate that 49% of the money goes toward loan forgiveness and 51% to support loans for drinking water and wastewater projects.
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The state tends to put these federal dollars into bond markets and uses the proceeds to fund projects, APCC wrote in a recent letter to Cape towns urging them to have projects ready to take advantage of the new federal money.
There is already a heavy load of contaminants from septic systems — which is how over 80% of Cape properties treat their wastewater — that are already in groundwater that will not be addressed by new treatment plans. Septic waste is making a slow but steady march to the sea and freshwater ponds and lakes. It also takes years to get approval and funding for wastewater cleanup projects, which are by far the most expensive municipal projects ever undertaken in all of the Cape’s towns and fire districts, and will take decades to fully implement.
Wastewater treatment projects at least a decade away
The Cape may be a decade or more away from the sweet spot where the multi-billion-dollar municipal efforts to clean up wastewater using new and existing wastewater treatment plants, sewering and other technologies and strategies are implemented. The systems are designed to remove nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from the waste stream that contaminates the region’s groundwater supplies and that ultimately results in oxygen-starved water bodies with runaway algal growth. Stormwater runoff and lawn fertilizers also contribute nutrients.
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The APCC report was based on data from water sampling and monitoring by its researchers and volunteers as well as county, municipal and state organizations. The water quality data is compared to various water quality standards to produce a grading of acceptable or unacceptable.
APCC tracks freshwater water quality in 109 Cape ponds through its cyanobacteria monitoring program. This year, 38 ponds (35%) were graded as unacceptable. The number of ponds being checked has increased every year, but the percentage receiving a failing grade has remained flat at around a third of ponds tested.
Gottlieb noted that just 10% of the Cape’s 996 ponds and lakes are sampled and monitored, even though it appears the majority are vulnerable to nutrient contamination and the affects of climate change.
“One consistent element affecting them all is warming,” he said.
Worries about rising surface temps in ponds
A 2018 study of ponds in the Cape Cod National Seashore by National Park Service researchers showed two decades of increasing surface water temperatures. The report found that in a majority of the ponds they studied, layers determined by water temperature and density that occur in the summer had strengthened over time.
Known as thermoclines, these layers inhibit the mixing of oxygen from the surface into bottom layers, which then become oxygen-starved and can kill off marine life and vegetation.
Gottlieb noted that these conditions promote the chemical exchange of phosphorus into the water that would otherwise be trapped in decaying leaf and other organic matter in bottom sediments. Along with phosphorus from lawn fertilizer and septic effluent, this natural source can promote the growth of algae, especially cyanobacteria, an algae that produces toxins harmful to animals and humans.
Gottlieb pushed for county officials to fund a Cape Cod Commission study that he said would help to develop a model to evaluate the majority of the Cape’s ponds according to whether they were receiving nutrients from natural sources like decaying leaf litter or from human sources like septic systems and runoff — or a combination of both.
“The study would help us to characterize which ones are driven by external and internal loads and come up with management to address them,” Gottlieb said.
Kristy Senatori, Cape Cod Commission executive director, said the commission would soon be releasing an update of the 2003 “Cape Cod Pond and Lake Atlas.” She said they are engaged in science-based information gathering and planning on a level comparable to the regional 208 wastewater plan that focused mainly on marine water bodies. Senatori said its freshwater initiative should be completed within 12 to 15 months.
“We’ve seen the degradation of freshwater water bodies and this report (APCC State of the Waters) supports that,” Senatori said.
Last year’s APCC report on municipal drinking water systems marked a departure from the universally excellent grades for Cape water suppliers in the previous water quality reports. Gottlieb said the downgrading to “good” from “excellent” in some wells in Yarmouth, Barnstable, Sandwich and Bourne, and a boil water order in Wellfleet, reflected correctable maintenance infrastructure issues and not the source water.
But, Gottlieb said, the next State of the Waters report will include an evaluation of the impact of PFAS (per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances) on drinking water supplies. Last year was the first year the state required public drinking water systems to test for PFAS, which form nearly unbreakable chemical bonds and are heat and water resistant.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to testicular, kidney and other cancers, liver damage, high cholesterol, reduced vaccine efficacy and a host of other maladies. They are used in clothing, food packaging, cookware, adhesives, furniture fabric finishes and particularly in firefighting foams whose use at airports and firefighting academies led to groundwater contamination.
Chatham, Mashpee, Barnstable and other towns have already tested and found PFAS. Some are attributable to known point sources like airports, Joint Base Cape Cod and the now-closed Barnstable County Fire and Rescue Training Academy, but others, like Chatham, have yet to identify a source.
“We suspect there are more (towns with PFAS problems),” Gottlieb said.
Contact Doug Fraser at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DougFraserCCT.