Saving Cape Cod’s Waters

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: The Cape’s saltwater bays are in crisis, their water quality degraded severely by 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 Director of Strategic Litigation. The outbreaks can sicken people, plants, and animals and make the Cape’s bay 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 holes 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 easily 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 that waste seeps through the Cape’s sandy, porous soil and into its waters, causing toxic algae outbreaks [above] that sicken people, pets, plants, and wildlife. Photo: EcoPhotography

But there is good news. Thanks to a lawsuit filed by CLF against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2015 the Cape Cod Commission updated a 30-year-old Areawide Wastewater Management Plan – called a Section 208 plan for the statute in the federal Clean Water Act that mandates it [see sidebar, page 5]. The updated plan outlines the legally required actions the Cape’s 15 towns must take to literally clean up their act.

Three years later, however, progress on implementing the 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.”

He points to CLF’s litigation and the resulting publicity around the updated Areawide Wastewater Management Plan as helping to drive awareness among residents. “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,” he says. A major sticking point for all is the price tag for addressing the issue.

A sign reads Closed to shellfishing
Shellfishing was once a lucrative business on Cape Cod. But nitrogen pollution has made shellfish from some places unsafe to eat. Photo: Cotuit Bay/EcoPhotography

That price tag is significant – up to $8 billion by some estimates. “We’re talking on the scale of a Boston Harbor cleanup in terms of cost,” says Gottlieb. “But we have to spread that across 250,000 people while Boston Harbor was spread across 2.5 million. That has dampened a lot of the early municipal actions.”

Like Boston Harbor, the Cape’s pollution problem didn’t get to this dire stage overnight, and “it’s not going to get cleaned up overnight,” says Gottlieb. After all, Boston’s Deer Island wastewater treatment plant wasn’t fully operational until 27 years after CLF filed the landmark lawsuit that sparked the Harbor cleanup.

But everyone recognizes that the Cape does not have 30 more years to solve its septic problem. Too much is at stake. “This is threatening the entire Cape economy – not to mention the natural resources that make the Cape a place where people want to live and visit,” says Kilian.

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 it needs to be solved through collective and regional action,” 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.

This is a collective problem that crosses town lines. It needs to be solved through collective action.

—Christopher Kilian, Director Strategic Litigation

Mashpee, Sandwich, and Barnstable, for example, signed an agreement to work together to curb nitrogen pollution in Popponesset Bay – creating a potential model for cross-community cooperation. Orleans voters have funded the installation of new sewer lines for its core commercial district. Other towns have also moved to fund upgrades to treatment plants, collection systems, or sewers.

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, but they have 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 Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection 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.

Popponesset Bay on Cape Cod
Cape Cod’s bays – and economy – are at risk if urgent action isn’t taken now. Photo: Popponesset Bay/EcoPhotography

The lawsuit prompted DEP to review its current regulations around wastewater treatment and to issue new ones aimed at finally cleaning up the Cape’s pollution. Those regulations are currently under review by state officials and are expected to be finalized late this year.

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.