Cape Cod Fish Kills: How Much Worse Is It Going to Get?

In the department of poo:

Depressing news out of Little Pond in Falmouth, one of the long salt ponds along the Falmouth shore from the Inner Harbor to Waquoit Bay: over the weekend a bunch of striped bass –some apparently up to 40 inches in length — were found dead on pond’s shores. The culprit? According to the press it’s septic tank pollution from the gazillion houses that surround the pond.

Looking at the density of the houses some lucky developer was able to cram into the area long ago, and add in the fact that each and every one of those houses flushes their toilets into big holes in the sandy ground, who can be surprised that a ton of effluent is leaching into the water? I’m amazed that a significant stack of bass were up inside of such a stagnant pool this time of year (perhaps they followed a school of baitfish in from the clean water of Vineyard Sound) and I can’t understand how anyone, particularly the people who live around there, can sit back and do nothing. The alarm is ringing and it doesn’t smell very nice.

This isn’t Falmouth’s first fishkill. Another one occurred a year ago, nearly to the day, in North Falmouth. Fish kills aren’t rare — so-called “oxygen events” occur regularly in ponds and backwaters with restricted water flow.

The density of development along the south shore of the Cape is astonishing and one has to wonder what the town officials thought they were doing when they zoned postage-stamp lots along the estuaries.  It’s obvious to me that something has to be done to get the shit out of the bays, and the shoreside ghettos of Falmouth seem as good a place to start as anywhere with small, local cluster treatment plants. A big pipe solution is not going to fix these neighborhoods anytime soon, and persuading, even mandating everyone starts pooping into composting toilets is laughable.

I’m starting to warm up to composting toilets (not a great choice of words). Last year Barnstable County had a program offering to install the things on a 20-year, zero interest loan in the homes of people with failed septic systems who were considering a Title 5 septic project. Two friends in Cotuit have installed the technology. One was put in at least a decade ago, the other is going in right now in a new construction project. I was given a tour of the installation and it was pretty amazing — it’s called a Phoenix –but had some limitations in a retro-fit scenario as the composing tanks need to be located generally directly below the toilet itself (which looks like any ordinary toilet). As I have a minimalist Cape Cod cellar (essentially a round, brick lined root cellar sort of thing) I’d have to jack the house up, excavate a new basement, and then, and only then could I consider a composting solution (I could consider a composting outhouse I suppose ….)

People will going to freak out at whatever solution is proposed because it will cost them a lot of money to get there.  When Barnstable hooked the Paine Creek neighborhood in Hyannis up to the municipal waste water treatment center there were pitchforks and torches at the town council meetings.

The estimate for a new Title 5 compliant septic tank is generally $20,000 — and those do nothing to get nitrogen out of the watershed.

The state has an online tool to search for your local beaches and the results of their water tests. Here in Cotuit, water is tested outside of the harbor at Loop and Oregon Beaches. I’ll be working later this week with the Three Bays Preservation organization to initiate private testing at Ropes Beach, where we had a town ordered closing in 2007. Here’s a link to the Barnstable County department of health’s site for beach testing. One beach in Barnstable failed this week – Lovell’s Pond in Cotuit.


Cape Cod Times story

Falmouth Enterprise story

State report on Little Bay nitrogen sources.