The Barnstable Patriot
Jul 6, 2018
Watershed update presents problems while offering hope
On June 29 Osterville native Zenas “Zee” Crocker told an audience of about 175 of his shock — upon moving home three years ago — of seeing algae blooms in the water.
“I always thought that algae was microscopic, but this is a type of algae,” said Crocker, executive director of Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, displaying a slide of ulva, a type of non-naturally occurring “sea lettuce” growing at Prince Cove in Marstons Mills.
The reason for these algae blooms, he explained, is an excess of nitrogen discharge from septic systems into the water.
“Too much nitrogen from septic systems over-fertilizes,” Crocker said. “It pollutes the water and creates algae blooms that kill off sea life.”
The open house presentation, titled “An Update on Our Waters and Watersheds,” took place at the Wianno Club. The forum also featured Barnstable Town Manager Mark Ells and Chris Kilian, vice president of strategic litigation at Conservation Law Foundation.
“You’re going to hear some things tonight that may scare you a little,” Barnstable Clean Water Coalition President Michael Egan said by way of introduction. “But it’s designed to do that.”
The presentation focused on Three Bays, one of the Cape’s 53 watersheds, which encompasses embayments, rivers, ponds, and lakes in Marstons Mills, Osterville, Cotuit, and Sandwich.
According to the Cape Cod Commission, Three Bays is the third worst-polluted watershed on the Cape.
“The good news is, there’s a lot of interest in this watershed,” said Crocker. “It’s a living laboratory.”
Sewering is not an option for the watershed, due to its geological features and prohibitive cost (it would cost at least a billion dollars), but there are alternatives. That’s where the Cape Cod Commission’s 208 Plan comes in as a watershed-based approach to restoring embayment water quality on Cape Cod.
“The 208 Plan isn’t necessarily a plan, but it’s more like a menu,” Crocker said. Some of the “menu options” include dredging; wetland restoration; storm water management such as rain gardens; and aquaculture, such as oysters, which filter the water and reduce nitrogen.
The 208 Plan also proposes an alternative to a conventional Title 5 systems.
A NitROE tank is a supplement to an existing Title 5 in which an aeration chamber and a wood chip chamber are installed. The wood chips are a carbon source and filter waste for significant total nitrogen reduction.
“These systems are being tested at the Joint Base in Sandwich and on Martha’s Vineyard, and have demonstrated nitrogen removal rates of as much as 95 percent,” Crocker said.
According to Ells, water quality on Cape Cod is indeed a very complex issue.
“It’s all about quality of life and maintaining our unique character. At the center of that is water,” he said.
Ells mentioned some of the projects that have taken place, including dredging in East Bay.
“Did it solve the problem? No. Did it make a difference? Yes,” said Ells, adding that he’s optimistic for the future.
Kilian, whose organization led the cleanup of Boston Harbor in the 1980s, echoed both Crocker and Ells.
“Here on the Cape, there’s such a broad understanding of how fundamental water is,” Kilian said. “In the 1980s, this is the same talk that was happening around Boston Harbor.”
Kilian said the criteria for passing or failing Title 5 systems, set by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, have not met the requirements of the law.
“When it comes to nitrogen discharge into the waters of the Commonwealth, there should be no system that should have been passed,” he said. “It’s a long dialogue that needs to be translated into action.”
For more information, visit www.bcleanwater.org.