OpEd: Save Great Bay Before It’s Too Late

Peter Wellenberger

The Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper, along with the Coastal Conservation Association of NH, Great Bay Trout Unlimited and the NH Coastal Protection Partnership, coauthored the following editorial to The Portsmouth Herald.

A copy of this OpEd was originally published in The Portsmouth Herald. You can find a copy of it online here.

April 13 — To the Editor

The Great Bay estuary is in decline. That’s the inescapable message of the Piscataqua Region Estuary Partnership’s (PREP) most recent (2009) State of the Estuaries report, which tracks the health of the Great Bay and Hampton/Seabrook estuaries.

Of 12 primary indicators of the estuary’s health tracked by PREP, 11 show negative or cautionary trends, including two very troubling negative trends: nitrogen concentrations in Great Bay are increasing, and eelgrass vegetation — the cornerstone of the Great Bay ecosystem, and an important nursery for fish and other marine species — is in sharp decline.

Consistent with findings in the 2009 State of the Estuaries report, the N.H. Department of Environmental Services and Environmental Protection Agency have acknowledged that waters throughout the Great Bay estuary are impaired, meaning that their health is in jeopardy. Based on the overwhelming evidence that immediate action is needed to clean up the estuary, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun issuing draft permits to limit nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants affecting the estuary (there are a total of 18 such facilities, 14 of them in New Hampshire; none currently has a nitrogen pollution limit).

In sharp contrast to the need for urgent and meaningful action, however, a small group of municipalities calling themselves the Great Bay Municipal Coalition — Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, Rochester and Newmarket — persistently have tried to claim “the science is in doubt” and to delay needed improvements to their sewage treatment plants.

In the face of the pollution problems plaguing the estuary, rather than taking meaningful steps to solve the problem, the municipal coalition has engaged in a withering, all-out assault on the N.H. Department of Environmental Services and EPA. Last summer they sought assistance from a New Hampshire member of Congress, resulting in a bill calling for a five-year moratorium on any EPA permitting activity in the Great Bay estuary. Most recently, the municipal coalition filed a lawsuit against the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, challenging — on procedural grounds — the legality of its analysis regarding nitrogen pollution in the estuary.

Members of the municipal coalition have been sure to explain that they care about the Great Bay estuary, and that they want to be part of the solution. They say they’re committed to “immediately” upgrading their sewage treatment plants to reduce nitrogen pollution. But their words ring hollow. In fact they’ve made clear that while they’re willing to “immediately” upgrade their sewage treatment plants to reduce pollution to a certain level, if they’re required to do more they will litigate the validity of their permits, and they’ll do nothing to upgrade their sewage treatment plants while that litigation is pending. Actions speak louder than words, and so far the municipal coalition’s only actions have been to delay what must be done to save the Great Bay estuary.

The Great Bay estuary belongs to us all. The health of its waters is inextricably linked to tourism and the local economy, and to what makes the Seacoast such a special place. We cannot allow the health of Great Bay, Little Bay, the Piscataqua River, and all the waters comprising the estuary to be held hostage. The estuary is approaching a tipping point which, once crossed, will make its recovery all the more expensive, if not impossible. Just ask the folks struggling to reverse the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland, alone, is expected to spend — conservatively — $11 billion to clean up the bay.

We simply can’t afford to keep kicking this can down the road. It’s time for the municipal coalition to start investing in real solutions rather than paying lawyers and outside consultants to thwart needed action. It’s refreshing to see the town of Newington, which will be subject to EPA permitting, embracing the protections required to save Great Bay; and it’s encouraging to see another community, the town of Durham, choose not to follow the municipal coalition down the path of litigation and delay. We all benefit from a clean, healthy Great Bay estuary. Now is the time for action.

Derek Durbin
Chairman, New Hampshire Coastal Protection Partnership

Mitch Kalter
President, Trout Unlimited, Great Bay Chapter

Don Swanson
President, Coastal Conservation Association, N.H. Chapter

Peter Wellenberger
Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper, Conservation Law Foundation

Focus Areas

Clean Air & Water



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