Dirty Water

I spent a rainy Saturday in a wobbly chair in a lecture hall at Cape Cod Community College because of a newspaper headline that said words to the effect of “Cape Coastal Cleanup Could Wind Up in Court.” My curiosity piqued by the organizing presence of the Conservation Law Foundation – a non-profit that literally sued the shit out of Boston Harbor – turning one of the nation’s worst polluted bodies of water into one of the cleanest – I did a little homework, crawled into the back row, and watched a panel muddle their way through a well-intentioned discourse on the disgusting state of Cape Cod’s estuaries, bays, harbors, and coves.

Dead harbors make me mad (after all this blog is devoted to clamming strategies).   Flush a toilet on Cape Cod and eventually, not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, the result is going to make its way into the water. There, the waste over-nourishes the environment and promotes algae blooms, which in turn cloud the water, blocking sunlight from hitting the bottom. Lack of light and the suffocation effects of the algae kills off the  eel grass where the scallops live and breed. Eventually, over three or four decades, the result is a turbid soup of slime and inedible spider crabs.

The situation sucks and is getting suckier, despite a well intentioned panoply of studies, proposals, committees and coalitions.

Enter the Conservation Law Foundation, a non-profit environmental advocacy group that does one thing very well – it sues polluters and gets stuff cleaned up. When the CLF starts talking about litigation, politicians pay attention, and now the selectmen and town councilors of Cape Cod’s 15 towns are realizing that they may not have decades to figure out how to get the nitrogen out of their harbors.

Yes, sure, there are reasons to let the Cape figure this one out on its own. (There is a pool of zero interest cash available to fund these projects, cash that goes away if the borrowers are under court order) But the implications of a massive “big pipe” sewer system, one built regionally to pool the effluent from those 15 towns, is both expensive and staggering to behold. To say taxpayers aren’t going to like it is an understatement. Residents who live inland, away from the Gatsby mansions of the waterfront, are going to be hard pressed to accept any responsibility for nitrogen loading – yet, as we live on a so-called sole source aquifer – a giant sponge of sand, everyone, including me and my septic tank, are going to have to buck up at some point and pay to have our houses connected to a big pipe that will route our personal emissions inland to a big treatment plant. It’s the only way. We can haggle over in-ground nitrogen mitigation solutions, we can blame lawn fertilizer, birds, and dog poop …. But in the end it’s all septic and it’s got to go.

The CLF can accelerate that. It would start by convincing the EPA that the Cape is broken, in violation, and in need of a cleanup. Then the screaming starts. The municipal bonds, the massive infrastructure disruption, the trenches, the plants, the equipment ….

And, even if a massive sewer is put in place (and the voters of Chatham are moving closer to becoming one of the first towns to go down that road to save their beloved Pleasant Bay), it will be decades before the benefits are realized. In the department of unintended consequences, when you take away septic tanks and their discharge as the gating factor in land use, you can suddenly argue that a 12 story condo with 90 units is okay on that little patch of waterfront scrub pine. Can you say Florida or Long Island? The Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod is right – this is a big infrastructure issue and it’s cheaper to treat a cluster of customers than a lot of sprawled out ones.

I’m voting with my checkbook and joining the CLF. I want them to be the catalyst that binds the 15 towns of the Cape together in a truly regional compact and gets my harbor cleaned up.

This is the first time I have written about sewers since I covered the town of Salem. NH for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in 1982. I vowed then it would be the last. It isn’t. Sewers remain the most tedious topic on the planet, and yet, one might argue, one of the more important.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

5 thoughts on “Dirty Water”

  1. Fabulous, Dave. the Bay keepers and River keepers here in California are two groups I support and really admire. They’ve done exceptional work here in San Diego bay, where fishing is m,uch better than it was 20 years ago, and the Sacramento and American River systems as well as onorthen San Diego bay are all much better for the efforts of the two keeper organizations.
    Most excellent, Mr C!


  2. The price for a healthy shore & marine estuary ecosystem can’t be exaggerated. Yes, there probably will be some attendant ugly side effects, condos etc…However, at the present rate of degradation the Cape will become known as the intergalactic haven for all the crap that flourishes as a result of algae blooms & marine ecology mismanagement in just a few decades…We’re probably going to be seeing barking quahogs & bluefish w/ arms to grab wading infants before too long!

  3. Sounds like you’ve jumped on Sara Law’s bandwagon — a very worthy cause. And happy birthday from a fellow 5/13th-er.

  4. Dave,

    Sounds like you are doing the right thing. I think your vision in the department of unintended consequences is right too….

    Overdevelopment can be a new and unleashed threat. Rezoning and dramatic changes in tax rates can potentially follow as well – I’ve seen this happen elsewhere.

    I wish your community the best in exponging one devil and keeping the new ones at bay…


  5. David —Well done. I am glad you are arroused. The current situation and lack of action on the part of the town is a travesety. There are many moves short of the “big Pipe” solution including limiting development and cluster systems that should be undertaken by the town. Unfortunately the development interests have us all by the shot hairs and it is difficult to slow them down, Sometimes legal action is the only answer to stop procrastinating and CLF has a terrific record with this sort of problem.—-Rick

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