Cape struggles to stem water pollution threats

Many experts blame development for fouling ponds and coastal waters.(7/15/98 Cape Cod Times)

By JOHN LEANING

STAFF WRITER

Sechi disk lowered over the side of COMMANDER used to identify clarity of water. The depth at which the black and white disk can still be seen is related to the amount of algae and plankton suspended in the water,

    ORLEANS - Despite some success in the effort to reduce pollution threats to Cape Cod's ponds and coastal waters, the situation is not good. Earlier this month, torrential rains forced the state to shut down most of the Cape's shellfishing areas (and most of the other shellfish beds along the coast from Rhode Island to New Hampshire) because of high fecal bacterial counts in the water.

    The major culprits were runoff and sewer overflows in urban areas. On Cape Cod, the problems stemmed from storm-water runoff and flooded residential waste-water systems inundated by high ground-water levels. "The overriding message is that we're right on the edge. There is not a big safety margin," said Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. "We have come right up to the limit on pollution loadings to rivers, embayments and the coastline in general," she said. Nickerson and others working to halt water pollution say the basic problem is development, and the accompanying wastewater discharges and runoff from roads, roofs and parking lots.

    Another serious pollutant is nitrogen, also coming from septic systems and fertilizer. It can be more insidious, since it can take years for nitrogen to reach embayments, where it causes unwanted plant growth.

    More problems than solutions Unfortunately, there seem to be more examples recently of pollution problems than there are solutions.

    At Long Pond in Harwich and Brewster, a Cape Cod Commission study has identified high levels of phosphorus as the cause of major algae blooms that turn the water turbid. Major sources of that phosphorus includes septic systems too close to ground water, fertilizer runoff and the pond itself. Several ponds in the Great Sand Lake area of Harwich recently showed high fecal coliform bacteria counts, which later dropped. Town health director Paula Champagne said the suspected culprits were flooded septic systems and basement sump pump runoff.

    Some experts think the situation will worsen before it improves. A big reason is the cost. "The price tag is always more than people are generally willing to pay for the return, until it gets so bad and so many people are screaming," said George Heufelder, environmental program manager for the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment. Depending on the "fix," new systems can cost from $5,000 to $10,000, or more in some cases. Putting sewers in neighborhoods, when feasible, can be an expensive option as well, although costs can be spread out over a 20-year betterment tax.

    Alternative treatment explored

    Alternative treatment systems, designed to reduce nitrogen from discharges, are another option. But those can be costly because the market for them is only now developing. There are now about 50 alternative treatment systems in place across the Cape, limiting nitrogen and other pollutants from entering the ground water. A new test site for innovative septic systems is now under construction at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. The effectiveness of these new systems will be compared with standard Title 5 systems. The results will show which work best.

    At the county level, a new, low-interest revolving account is available to every town in Barnstable County to finance upgrades or replacement of failed systems. Participating towns borrow up to $200,000 and loan the money to homeowners at 5 percent interest. In the seven towns signed up with the county so far, between 75 to 80 upgrades have been financed. Homeowners pay an average installation price of $5,000 over a 20-year betterment tax on their real estate. Loan payments are put back into the fund to finance more upgrades. "This is perfectly geared to correct problems of shellfish bed contamination. Towns can prioritize areas," said Kendall Ayers, program coordinator at the county health department.

    Ordinary folks make a difference

    At the local level, the citizen-fueled cleanup of Meeting House Pond in East Orleans is held out as an example where ordinary people can and do make a difference. June Fletcher was one of those who started questioning why the pond was closed to shellfishing. The first closure signs went up two weeks after the retired couple moved into their cozy waterfront home. Sandy MacFarlane, the former Orleans conservation administrator, was a moving force in the project as well. She recalled the year before the closure in the late 1980s, when about $100,000 worth of shellfish came from the pond. Once problem storm-water drains into the pond were identified as the culprits, the cleanup campaign "took on a life of its own," MacFarlane said. Meeting House Pond is now once again a productive shellfish area, thanks to the joint town-citizen effort.

    Private enterprise is also getting into the act, as new ways of treating polluted water generate more interest and wider markets. For example, StormTreat System Inc. in Sandwich has developed a new storm-water runoff treatment system that won high praise from Trudy Coxe, secretary of the state Executive Office of Environmental Protection. The device uses special collection chambers to trap sand and dirt, and a man-made marsh to clean the first "flush" of storm-water runoff, which normally holds 90 percent of pollutants washed from roads and parking lots. Currently, systems are already installed by the intersection of routes 28 and 149 in Marstons Mills and in the Wychmere Harbor municipal parking lot. "