More than two-thirds of the Cape’s coastal waterways and more than a third of its freshwater ponds are suffering from poor water quality, according to the “State of the Waters” report recently released by the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. But they acknowledge that Lower Cape towns have made important strides toward reducing nutrient pollution, and that it will take time for that work to start showing results.
The report used water quality data to grade ponds, coastal waters and embayments, based on specific water quality parameters. Each testing site was graded as having “acceptable” or “unacceptable” water quality, and of the 48 embayments in the survey, 33 had failing grades. They included all of Harwich’s harbors and the Herring River; Muddy Creek, Taylor’s Pond, Sulphur Springs, upper Oyster Pond and Ryder’s Cove in Chatham; and in Orleans, 11 out of 14 stations around Little Pleasant Bay, as well as Mill Pond, Town Cove and Nauset Harbor.
“The report conclusions clearly show the alarming impacts that excessive nutrients from inadequately treated wastewater have had on water resources all across Cape Cod,” APCC Executive Director Andrew Gottleib said. Details of the report are posted at www.CapeCodWaters.org.
“The broad overview is that we have significant loading from nutrients from septic systems, and that as a region, we have not made nearly enough progress on implementing the management measures that are needed,” he said.
Some communities are making headway, however.
“Certainly the town of Chatham’s expansion of the sewer system, and now the work that’s going on to bring parts of Harwich into that system, are important steps that are examples that other towns should be looking at and following,” Gottleib said. “And Orleans has made a lot of progress getting the votes in place and getting the money lined up” for its wastewater management plan, he added.
Frank Messina, a vice president of the Friends of Chatham Waterways, said it’s important to put reports like the APCC’s in perspective.
“It was a bit alarmist in some ways, because they’re trying to make a point,” he said. “And it’s a point well taken.” Many Cape Cod towns are decades behind in wastewater planning, and the technical and political challenges of doing so are formidable.
For 20 years, the Friends of Chatham Waterways’ Water Watchers program has collected the data that formed the basis of Chatham’s Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan.
“We’ve been working with the town of Chatham doing that water quality testing of all our embayments and Nantucket Sound and Pleasant Bay, and about eight or nine years ago the Friends of Pleasant Bay got involved,” Messina said. “We don’t like to crow about it in Chatham, but we started addressing the problem very early.”
The FCW also now tests water quality in freshwater ponds, following the lead of a group in Orleans, Messina said.
“The Orleans Pond Coalition is a good one. They’ve been doing it awhile,” he said.
With regard to freshwater ponds, the APCC report identifies a need for more water quality monitoring.
“Only 149, or 15 percent, of the 996 ponds on Cape Cod are monitored for water quality,” the report announcement reads. “Of the 149 monitored ponds, over one-third -- 58 ponds or 39 percent -- had unacceptable water quality scores.”
In Harwich, ponds that received failing scores included Hinckley, Sand, Cornelius and Skinequit ponds; Lovers Lake and Stillwater Pond in Chatham, along with Emery Pond, Mill Pond and Black pond; and in Orleans, Cedar, Boland and Uncle Harvey’s ponds, as well as a half-dozen other small ponds in South Orleans.
Though the dynamics of nutrient pollution in freshwater ponds is slightly different than in salt water embayments, the underlying causes are the same. Of all the sources of harmful nutrients, residential septic systems are at the top of the list. Expanding sewer systems allows wastewater to be treated in a way that removes the nutrients, not just the bacteria handled by regular Title V septic systems. Nitrogen reaches waterways and ponds via slow-moving groundwater, which means that pollution can continue for years after the source is eliminated.
“It moves very slowly,” Messina said. “It takes a long time. And we don’t see any dramatic improvements, but there’s no question we will see improvement by virtue of the fact that there’s less nitrogen going into the ground.”
That delay is all the more reason for towns to step up their wastewater planning efforts, Gottleib said.
“The reality is this: from the time that the town makes a decision and allocates the money to the construction, and then the actual activation of these systems can be lengthy,” he said. Though cleaning the groundwater takes time, “you’re never going to get there unless you take the first step.”
The APCC report contained some good news: it also assessed the quality of all of the public water supplies on Cape Cod. The 20 public water supplies all received a grade of “excellent,” based on their compliance with current drinking water standards.
“However, contaminants of emerging concern, such as PFAS, endocrine-disrupting compounds, pharmaceuticals and microplastics, are not monitored for most public water systems and drinking water, as standards for these contaminants have not been established,” the report announcement reads.