The first multi-town watershed permit issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has been approved, allowing innovative options for the management of nitrogen pollution in and around Pleasant Bay.
Nitrogen – 75 percent of which is generated through septic systems, 16 percent by lawn and golf course fertilization and another 9 percent through stormwater runoff – serves as a fertilizer in marine waters, depleting oxygen and spawning algae blooms and fish kills while further degrading the marine ecosystem.
“With the dramatic increase in Cape development and population over the past several decades, increasing amounts of nitrogen – primarily from septic systems – has been discharged into the Cape's waterways, polluting local bays and estuaries and choking off once-abundant marine life,” according to a DEP press release issued last Friday announcing the permit. “This contamination not only presents serious environmental impacts, but also has a serious potential economic impact on fishing, shellfishing, tourism and property values.”
The watershed permit will provide the Pleasant Bay communities of Chatham, Harwich, Orleans and Brewster with a greater range of solutions to address water quality needs. It will allow alternative approaches, such as fertilizer reductions, inlet restoration, aquaculture or permeable reactive barriers.
It will also allow communities to get credit for nitrogen reductions stemming from non-traditional approaches and technologies. Presently there is no structure for the use of non-traditional technologies for the removal of nitrogen pollution.
The permit was issued for 20 years, rather than the usual five, in order to allow towns to adopt long-term strategies. It allows the towns to employ an adaptive management approach, which acknowledges the uncertainties that may be associated with some projects. While requiring careful monitoring and assessment of progress in a transparent fashion, the provision allows changes that may be needed to achieve water quality goals in a timely manner.
“We're very excited about this,” said Carole Ridley, coordinator of the Pleasant Bay Alliance. “It's the first permit of its kind in the state and provides lots of flexibility to address nitrogen pollution in the bay.”
The effort to combat nitrogen intrusion in the Pleasant Bay Watershed, consisting of 6,200 acres of water and another 11,800 acres of land, has been going on for two decades. Ridley said the alliance, working with the towns, began the watershed permitting process in 2016. The permit is issued to the towns and the alliance will serve as the coordinating entity.
Studies conducted by the Pleasant Bay Alliance have revealed excessive amounts of nitrogen impairing the bay waters. Analysis of conditions by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project reveals the need to remove 36 percent of the current nitrogen load; individual sub-embayments have removal needs as high as 83 percent, and 100 percent of any future loads from new development must be removed.
The Pleasant Bay Composite Nitrogen Management Analysis states the town of Orleans needs to remove 39 percent; Harwich 25 percent; Chatham 23 percent; and Brewster 13 percent of the nitrogen.
Chatham and Harwich have already worked together to reduce nitrogen in Muddy Creek by improve the flow between the creek and Pleasant Bay.
“Waters of the Cape are important natural resources that impact local economies and quality-of-life in these communities,” Governor Charlie Baker said. “This new permitting approach reflects our commitment to improving water quality while providing citizens and officials with the flexibility and assistance to develop solutions that are most effective and affordable for their communities.”
“Water quality on Cape Cod has been in jeopardy for years due to excess nitrogen pollution in our beautiful bays and estuaries. I want to commend the towns in the Pleasant Bay Alliance for working with MassDEP to develop a new permitting approach for wastewater management,” Cape and Islands Senator Julian Cyr said. “This flexibility and innovative strategy for permitting will allow tangible options to restore water quality and, when coupled with the new revenue from the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund will help Cape Cod towns and watersheds have the tools they need to achieve their goals.”
“This new watershed permit is an exciting new approach to addressing the Cape's water quality challenges,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said. “The watershed permit fosters local flexibility, supports adaptive management when deciding on a solution and allows for choosing appropriate time lines for an undertaking of this size and complexity.”
By way of example, the town of Orleans is pursuing non-traditional methods of removing nitrogen, including shellfish uptake and permeable barriers near the shore, said George Meservey, director of planning and community development. The watershed permit will allow MassDEP to account for these methods to meet water quality goals.
Ridley said the towns have identified the measures they will be using in Pleasant Bay to reduce nitrogen pollution in comprehensive wastewater management plans, and the alliance will monitor the results of non-traditional technologies and present them to MassDEP to make sure that mitigation is moving along as indicated.
“The successful collaboration between MassDEP, the Pleasant Bay communities, the alliance, the Cape Cod Commission and EPA, represents pioneering effort,” MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg said. “We fully expect that this experience will benefit other Cape communities sharing watersheds and provide them with a clear pathway for developing the most effective, efficient solutions for their communities.”
“The problem is by watershed and region so the solutions should be the same. We are trying to do our part,” Harwich Town Administrator Christopher Clark said.
“The 30-plus years of cooperation between the Pleasant Bay communities in working to protect Pleasant Bay through ACEC designation, the Pleasant Bay Alliance, and working with MassDEP, EPA, and the Cape Cod Commission, along with the Administration's strong support for the watershed permit pilot project to address the nitrogen issue, reflect our strong, coordinated commitment to preserving Pleasant Bay for future generations to enjoys,” Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said.