Cloudy Waters

Eutrophication is a word most people have never heard of.

Life cycle of the Chlorophyta called Codium fragile. Codium "seaweed" is often piled deep along Bank Street Beach in Harwich Port causing an unpleasant odor at the beach. The macro algae is blooming due to the enrichment of coastal waters by runoff and outflow. Click picture to read codium issues

    By SUSAN MILTON, Cape Cod Times (10/4/98)

    ORLEANS - A silent, invisible killer is stalking the coastal waters of Cape Cod. In its wake, bays and rivers turn blood-red. Fish float belly up. The natural-born killer has a name, though it's unknown to many of its unwitting accomplices - every Cape resident and visitor who flushes a toilet and sends a rush of nutrients into the ground water to seep toward the coast. The invisible killer is the eutrophication of coastal waters.

    Eutrophication - also known as nutrient enrichment - happens naturally over centuries, but it can be changed into a quick killer by nitrogen and phosphorus from man-made developments big and small. The cause may be manure runoff from farms or just fertilizers from lawns. It may come from sewage outfalls and road drains or from a single house's septic system. Individually, these flows do little harm. When they gang up, they can turn a healthy bay or pond into a place of death. "There are a lot of people who know about eutrophication, but unfortunately they get their understanding only when something visible happens," said Sandra Macfarlane, who has detected eutrophication's effect during her 25 years as biologist and conservation agent in Orleans. What people see are the blooms of algae, feeding on the excess nutrients. As the algae feeds and dies, it uses up the oxygen in a body of water. Starved for oxygen, fish die. The water stinks. People complain and worry.

    Brewster and Harwich residents are upset about algae blooms on Long Pond, the Cape's largest freshwater lake. Water quality is worsening in the inlets of Pleasant Bay in Orleans, worried monitors recently discovered. The bay is the main drain for hundreds of houses on the shore around Harwich, Chatham and Orleans and for new houses in subdivisions in Brewster. Septic systems a problem Most nitrogen in coastal waters - 63 percent - comes from septic systems or treatment plants within the watershed, according to a Cape Cod Coastal Embayment Study this year by the Cape Cod Commission. Even if the septic systems meet Title 5 standards, they still allow nitrogen, phosphates and other nutrients to enter the underground aquifer.

    Once in the aquifer, the nutrients are on their way to coastal waters. Nitrogen entering the Cape inlets also come from lawn fertilizers, 18 percent; road run-off, 9 percent; and rainfall that carries air-borne pollutants from cars, industries and other sources to the ground. In 1987, 1988 and 1990, blooms of red algae preceded fish kills in Waquoit Bay in Falmouth and Mashpee, a national marine reserve picked for a national study to answer the questions: What is each bay or pond's limit for nutrients? How can nutrients from developments be controlled? Who makes it happen? Who will pay for it? Internationally, scientists are trying to answer the same questions on the Baltic, Mediterranean and North seas, where sewage outfalls and runoff from agriculture and industries are clouding the future of those waters. "Inland and coastal eutrophication is probably one of the biggest research avenues throughout the country," Macfarlane said. The killer's victims on the Cape surprise no one who knows the geology of the peninsula. On Cape Cod, fresh water - from rainfall, rivers, septic systems and treatment plants - flows underground to the coast. "If our ground water is moving a foot a day, then effluent from a house a mile away from shore will reach the bay in 14 years," Macfarlane said. "The effluent from our increased development that started in the 1970s is reaching our coastal waters now." A quiet, steady killer

    The problem that quietly began so many years ago will continue and is likely to increase. "As we continue to build, the development will add more nutrients to these bodies of water," Macfarlane said. "This applies to every water body, even freshwater ponds, affected more by phosphorus. In salt water, nitrogen is the problem." The steady contamination is why eutrophication is the next major problem facing Cape Codders, Macfarlane warned in a recent interview after she announced her retirement, effective this month. In the interview, she singled out the invisible killer as she looked back over her 24-year career in Orleans. In the early 1970s, when she started, the focus was on the Cape's drinking water and protecting its source - the underground aquifer of the Cape. It took 20 years for "aquifer" to become a household word, she said, so it will take a while for eutrophication to make its way into most Cape Codders' vocabulary.

    Macfarlane has watched the Cape's coastal waters most of her life. She grew up summers in a rented cottage in Eastham, across Route 6 from Town Cove. When she was ready to launch a career, Orleans was ready for her. In 1974, she started work as the town's marine biologist, leading the town's pioneering experiments to boost its shellfishing industry by raising quahog seed to plantable size. She also led the town's push to clean up its coastal waters. When she started, "water quality was not an issue that anyone ever talked about," Macfarlane said. "Storm-water runoff from roads either wasn't thought about or nobody knew how much it contributed to declining water quality." For decades, roads were designed to drain water, carrying oil, sediment, dog feces and other contaminants into the nearest, convenient low spot, usually a wetland, cove or bay. "Our waters were always clean so nobody worried about it, in Orleans, until 1982," she said. That's when Meetinghouse Pond was closed to shellfishing because of high counts of fecal coliform bacteria. The summer before, $100,000 worth of soft-shelled clams had been harvested from that pond. The saltwater pond is at the head of Little Pleasant Bay, far from the bay's inlet to the Atlantic Ocean in Chatham. Most of the contamination came from a network of drainage pipes from roads. Lots of warning signs

    There had been other warning signs before the pond's closure, Macfarlane said. The town was growing shellfish seed on rafts in Lonnies Pond from 1976 through the 1980s. Each year, seaweed grew heavier and heavier on the rafts, which had to be cleaned more and more often. "The fouling was getting more and more severe each year," she said. "We could see there was getting to be a problem." At the same time, there were blooms of algae in Pleasant Bay. The water was often blood-red. Lush mats of seaweed began to cover the shore along Meetinghouse Pond and the river. The sandy and hard bottom was changing to soft mud.

    Water quality changed dramatically in 1987, when the ocean breached the barrier beach, creating a new direct route for water to flow and flush the bay. The impact of the higher tides was terrible for Chatham, which was hit by waves of erosion that tore away the foundations of people's homes on the harbor. But in the upper reaches of Little Pleasant Bay, the tidal change had an enormous impact on improving water quality. "Suddenly there were no more blooms of algae or mats of seaweed," Macfarlane said. "The ponds were much clearer. The growths on eelgrass - a sign of stress - all those things cleared up. It's been 10 years since that happened." "People were grateful to see the water change but I think they thought the problem's been solved, although I kept trying to say this is a temporary situation," she said. "That's the problem with eutrophication. If you don't see it, it's hard to get the idea across that there's a problem. The breach was a reprieve. It didn't save the bay." She knows this from rowing around Pleasant Bay in her dory and watching the water. "As I row around, I'm starting to see some of the red water coming back - not as colorful as before but still there. There are samples of water in ponds, like Areys, that raise concerns, requiring a double-check. I begin to worry about how long this reprieve will last." Rare success story

    Orleans already has spent time and money to clean up "easy" and obvious sources of pollution and to build public support for doing more. In 1988, voters agreed to spend $400,000 to install new filtering drains at five locations. The work was completed in 1993; by December 1994, Meetinghouse Pond reopened to shellfishing for the first time in 12 years. The rare success story was credited to a grass-roots group of residents around the pond and Pleasant Bay who lobbied for the money at town meetings and to the leadership of Macfarlane who chaired the town's water quality task force and created the town's water quality laboratory to analyze samples of water taken by a network of volunteers. "Any natural system will still provide fecal coliform bacteria," Macfarlane said about the influx of nutrients from geese, wildlife and other natural sources. "What we're trying to do is clean up direct conduits that we have made for accumulating fecal coliform that are now entering our waterways. It's something we did ourselves, unknowingly, but it's something we can clean up ourselves." Orleans will soon repair five other coastal road drains and, alerted by its volunteer monitors, is paying attention to the decreasing water quality in its Pleasant Bay inlets. Orleans' focus on shellfish to manage the use of land has been a textbook example for Macfarlane's talks at national and international groups interested in shellfishing, water quality and managing land use. It's harder to muster the public and political support and funding to limit the size and location of houses and their septic systems, the size and location of lawns and how often people pump their septic systems, the major source of coastal pollution.

    You don't need to look far to see what happens when a community does nothing. In Kingston, only 50 of Kingston Bay's 660 acres are open to shellfishing. The bay has been polluted by raw sewage, especially from failed septic systems in the coastal neighborhood of Rocky Nook, according to a recent story in the Patriot Ledger. Community must band together Heavy rainfall increases the pollution because the water washes debris from storm drains into the bay. In winter, the bay is also polluted by feces from waterfowl. Town officials haven't worked to reopen the bay, which is why the problem is on the state's back burner. "In numbers, there are strengths," Macfarlane said about neighborhoods that band together to try to preserve their coastal or inland waters. "If you get concerned about what's in your area, you tend to keep an eye on it. I applaud all these neighborhood associations. I think they are really important in the scheme of things."

    The color of water, the existence and location of eelgrass and shellfish, large amounts of seaweed, changes in the bottom - those kinds of observations, over years, are important, she said. "It's tough to keep harping on 'We're all part of the problem.'You tell a group like the Friends of Meetinghouse Pond, that's done so much good, that their presence is part of the problem," said Macfarlane, who herself lives on the shores of Town Cove. "But even if you live a mile away, two miles away - you're in a watershed for one of these water bodies." Macfarlane enjoyed her first summer off since she was 13 and plans to stay in Orleans and finish her degree in resource management and administration in December. Then, "I'm hoping there are projects for which my skills will be desired," she said, adding thanks "to the town for the privilege of working for it and the people of Orleans who have given me unwavering support and respect. It's really the people who make this town as great as it is."