Saving Money And Improving Water Quality

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Environment , Waterways

Chatham Water Watcher Lauren Mosser Thonus collects a water sample in the Mill Pond with an instrument called a Niskin. She is one of dozens of volunteers who have helped develop a deep body of water quality data for the town's waterways over the past 18 years. COURTESY PHOTO

Volunteer Water Watchers Program Has Benefited Town For 18 Years

CHATHAM – Without the town's coastal water monitoring program, which depends on volunteer “water watchers,” it's unlikely that the town would be as advanced as it is in improving its coastal water quality.

The work done by the water watchers, a program run in conjunction with the Friends of Chatham Waterways, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if it was done by a consultant or contractor, according to Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson. And the baseline data collected since 1999 helped the town become the first community in the state to have the health of its coastal embayments assessed through the Massachusetts Estuaries Project.

That, in turn, led to approval of the town's wastewater management plan and the beginning of efforts to try to restore nutrients in coastal waters to 1950s levels.

At Monday's monthly meeting of the Friends of Chatham Waterways, Duncanson presented an overview of the data collected by water watchers over the past 17 years. Since then the town has initiated a long-term project to sewer much of the town as well as other efforts, most notably the bridge over Muddy Creek. And while it's too soon to tell definitively, Duncanson said the most recent water quality data is encouraging.

“The data shows some improvement,” he said. “I hope it continues. I'm just not convinced we're totally there yet. It want to see a couple more years of data.”

Complete data from this past summer is not yet available. Duncanson said the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth analyzes thousands of water samples from coastal Massachusetts communities, including Chatham, usually doing the work over the winter. This year's data, which should be available in the spring, is critical in determining if there are any early indication of water quality improvements in Muddy Creek due to the bridge completed in May.

Muddy Creek has been the “poster child” for poor water quality, Duncanson said, with a sampling station in the upper reaches of the tidal river regularly showing dissolved oxygen, nitrogen and phytoplankton levels “off the charts.”

“It's always been in pretty tough shape,” Duncanson said. The bridge, which replaced a narrow culvert, opened up the section of the creek east of Route 28 to a stronger tidal flow. “I can't wait to see this summer's data to see if it drops off as much as we think it will,” he said, adding that early data indicates lower dissolved oxygen levels at the upper reaches, probably due to improved tidal flushing, which may indicate that the creek is “stabilizing and getting back to equilibrium.”

Tests in other areas where sewers have been installed, including Oyster Pond and Stage Harbor, may be showing some improvements, but Duncanson said it's too soon to call it a trend. A full report on the most recent round of sampling should be completed by the spring.

Looking back at the 17 years worth of data, one surprising result is little, if any, impact on water quality from the 2007 break in North Beach.

“Mother Nature doesn't always do what we want her to do,” Duncanson noted.

The water watchers program has its roots in efforts by the town's late shellfish constable Kassie Abreu to open shellfish areas closed by the state in the 1980s. Duncanson said at the time the state made no effort to determine the origins of contamination that shut down shellfishing areas, so the town began doing its own testing, becoming the first community in the state with its own certified municipal water quality lab. Duncanson took over the lab in 1987. At the time, he said, the emphasis was on tracking bacterial pollution.

“At that point in time nutrients weren't even on our radar,” he said.

The lab's efforts succeeded in getting Oyster Pond opened to shellfishing seasonally, and also took on beach testing duties. By the late 1990s it was clear that there was something going on with the water quality in the town's embayments and estuaries, Duncanson said. However, no data existed indicate what the problem might be.

“There was nothing you could sink your teeth into,” he said.

In 1998, the town partnered with FCW to begin the coastal water quality nutrient monitoring program, using volunteer water watchers to collect samples from specific locations at specific times. Initially there were six sampling stations in Stage Harbor, “the most critical area,” beginning in the summer of 1999. The following year the program expanded to the north side of town, and more sampling stations were added in 2001 and 2002 primarily to provide baseline data for the state estuaries project. By that time the state had recognized that an over abundance of nutrients, primarily nitrogen, was responsible for the degradation of coastal waterways, caused mainly by development over the past half century.

“We had to get the background data,” Duncanson said. “There really was no background data.” At the time, he added, there weren't even specific limits to nutrient levels in marine waters, just general guidelines.

The ultimate result, for Chatham and other communities throughout the Cape and southeastern Massachusetts, was the development of water quality models that set TMDLs, or Total Maximum Daily Loads, for nutrients like nitrogen in each estuary. To reach those targets, nutrient flows had to be reduced by a specific amount, sometimes up to 100 percent, through sewering or other remediation, with the goal of restoring water quality to what it was in the 1950s, before both population and development exploded, Duncanson said.

The town spends about $15,000 to $20,000 a year on the water quality monitoring program, a bargain compared to what it would cost without the help of volunteers or subsidized testing by SMAST. Duncanson said testing a single sample can cost $100, and the town sends the lab thousands of samples taken from 19 testing locations every season.

“It would be $150,000 a year if it was done by a commercial lab,” he said. “We're getting a lot of bang for our buck.” Over the years, dozens of volunteer water watchers has participated, and the town has also partnered with the Friends of Pleasant Bay to share water testing duties and data in that estuary.

The town's sewer project is currently in a lull, with the next phase scheduled to begin within the next two years. The overall program is forecast to last 20 years and cost some $200 million, though other efforts, like the Muddy Creek bridge, could reduce the need for sewers and the overall cost.

Asked if acquaculture might be one of those alternative treatment methods, Duncanson noted that Chatham has one of the largest wild shellfisheries in the state, yet there's still a water quality problem here.

“Clearly the problem is bigger than shellfish can handle,” he said.

Using shellfish to filter out contaminants could, however, be a water quality “polisher” after infrastructure and other treatment methods are implemented, taking care of that “last little bit” of contamination that might not be cost effective to treat otherwise, he said.

Volunteer water watchers are always needed. Anyone interested can contact FCW member Frank Messina at