Saving Cape Cod’s Waters

New state regulations are a major win for water quality in Cape estuaries and bays

By Laurie O'Reilly

Imagine the kind of summer day we New Englanders wait for all year – a light breeze, an azure sky, temps in the low 80s, and, best of all, low humidity. Coolers are stuffed with snacks and sandwiches, beach chairs stacked in trunks, and kids corralled into waiting cars for the traffic-jammed ride to their favorite Cape Cod beach, where the water has warmed just enough to entice even the least hardy among us.

Such a day is the stuff of cherished summer memories and Cape Cod tourism brochures. But there’s an ugly catch to this idyllic scene: Cape water quality has degraded severely due to excess nitrogen from wastewater. The region’s septic systems – which serve 85% of households – aren’t designed to eliminate nitrogen, which moves through the Cape’s uniquely porous soil and seeps into local waters.

“Nitrogen acts like a fertilizer, causing massive algae outbreaks, including blue-green algae, that float on the water’s surface,” says Christopher Kilian, CLF Vice President of Strategic Litigation. The outbreaks can sicken people, plants, and animals and make the Cape’s beaches and freshwater ponds unsafe for swimming, boating, and shellfishing. Beach closures due to algae outbreaks and high bacteria levels have become all-too-frequent in recent years. Meanwhile, local swimming areas long beloved by year-round and summer residents alike are today often off-limits to their children and grandchildren.

Nitrogen pollution on the Cape is hardly a secret, says Kilian. Scientific reports show it has been getting worse year after year for decades now. The solution is also well known: Fix the region’s septic and wastewater treatment systems – and do it now.

The consequences of inaction are pretty well accepted, too. There are the devastating impacts to plants, fish, and wildlife, of course. But the growing “brown-slime” economy (a term coined by the region’s chamber of commerce) also could overpower the Cape’s tourism economy and the millions of dollars it pumps into the region every year. After all, it’s New England, and beach lovers could choose to visit one of the region’s other coastal areas where the waters are clean. If the tourists go, so do the summer jobs, retail and restaurant sales, rentals, and all the ancillary businesses that depend on them – along with housing values in both the seasonal and year-round markets.

Algae outbreak in Prince Cove, Marston Mills, Massachusetts
Nitrogen from waste seeps through the Cape’s sandy, porous soil and into its waters, causing foul algae outbreaks [above] that sicken people, pets, plants, and wildlife. Photo: EcoPhotography

Recognizing the high stakes if the nitrogen pollution was left unchecked, in 2015, CLF sued the EPA in an effort to force Cape towns to take urgent action. That lawsuit spurred the Cape Cod Commission to update a wastewater management plan for the region – one that outlined legally required steps the Cape’s 15 towns must take to clean up their act.

But, seven years later, progress in implementing that plan has been “slow and fragmented,” says Kilian. “Some towns are making progress, and they deserve credit, but mostly what we’re seeing are fits and starts – incremental progress here and then a setback there. There’s nothing comprehensive or aggressive happening right now.”

Andrew Gottlieb, Executive Director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, agrees it has taken some time for many residents to understand the scope and urgency of the problem. “If you go out on these waters on a sunny, blue-sky day, everything looks good,” he says. “Because much of the problem lies below the water’s surface, it’s typically unseen by those who aren’t on or in the water on a regular basis.”

The aha moment, Gottlieb says, “comes when we have a day of cloudy weather, a fish kill, or a floating algae mass that literally brings the problem to the surface. They’re recognizing that there’s a responsibility to take action here and that it’s not at the towns’ discretion to just endlessly put it off.”

Gottlieb can point to half a dozen towns making important strides and thinking creatively about how to fix the problem in their community. “I can also point to a suite of communities that are spinning their wheels.”  The way forward, say Gottlieb and Kilian, is for towns to work together to develop solutions and spread out the costs. “This is a collective problem that crosses town lines, and should  be solved through collective and regional action where possible,” says Kilian. “Individual action will result in inconsistent programs and standards, economic inefficiency, and continued delays.”

That’s why active residents, town officials, and organizations like Gottlieb’s Association to Preserve Cape Cod have been working town by town to spur action on the ground.

Kilian also cites the need for state-level action to help alleviate the cost burden to towns. Wastewater treatment plants and septic systems are all subject to state laws that dictate the amount of nitrogen pollution they can emit. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is charged with permitting treatment plants and residential septic systems but has done little to enforce or update those permits to reflect the current reality facing the Cape’s waters.

“It’s DEP’s job to help towns figure this out,” Kilian says in frustration. “What else do they exist for if not to protect the environment?”

To spur that necessary state-level action, CLF took the DEP to court. The lawsuit called on DEP to tighten regulations to require modern nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems for both new development and as upgrades to existing systems. In June, as a direct result of CLF’s lawsuit, the DEP issued regulations creating a new permitting program focused on compelling towns to build central sewer treatment systems or upgrade septic systems. Towns have two years to meet the requirements, and if they fail or choose not to, the regulations mandate that all septic systems within specific estuaries must be upgraded to remove nitrogen within five years.

The regulations have been a long time in coming, and the next task revolves around making sure towns comply while the state enforces the rules.

The new regulations are a step forward in the effort to restore the Cape bays, says Kilian. “But the next two years will be a critical test of whether the towns and DEP are serious about this problem. Now is the time for urgent action. ”

The summer tourism season serves as a reminder of both the issue’s urgency and the fragility of an economy based on clean, healthy waters. The tourists and summer people on whom nearly 50 percent of the Cape’s annual economy relies place a tremendous strain on the region’s already-failing waste treatment systems. Many more people mean much more nitrogen leaking into bays and streams. That, in turn, leads to more beach closures and smelly, harmful algae outbreaks.

“It’s a destructive cycle that must stop,” says Kilian. “We can’t allow the Cape’s waters to degrade any further.” Because no one benefits if those glorious blue-sky days spent playing and swimming on the Cape’s white-sand beaches disappear, revived only as nostalgic stories told on the coldest winter nights.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Conservation Matters.