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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

4 thoughts on “Cape Cod Fish Kills: How Much Worse Is It Going to Get?”

  1. OK – so the “real” problem is too many people. How does the Cape fix that? Is any town (or the county, or state) willing to un-grandfather these postage stamp lots and make people leave? How about the old school properties in the Town of Barnstable – since they have consolidated to the one school facility off West Barnstable/Osterville Road why didn’t they demolish the village schools and let the land go back to woods?

    We have seven billion people on this earth and still treat humans as if they are an endangered species. Constant requests for donations and funding to solve disease or famine, or whatever. Why? so we can get to 9 billion? Science – real science, has figured out that the ideal level of world human population is 2 billion. Any volunteers?

  2. Sadly Jim, plagues have generally had a way of working that out. As evidence, the fox population on the Cape — when they exceed the food supply available to them, the mange appears and kills a whole lot. Then, it starts all over.

    Not a pleasant prospect to be sure.

  3. I’ve been monitoring water quality around the world, through travel and the internet. It turns out that Cape Cod, at least in some ponds, still has some of the best water quality in the world. Many people on the Cape seem unaware of the treasure they have, and the need to conserve it. Almost everywhere else, it’s fish kills and toxic algae blooms. Even Lake Superior, one of the largest (and until recently purist) lakes in the world, just had it’s first algae bloom. With climate changes, algae blooms are only going to become more common. Details on

    Some Cape Codders are like the natives living in a South American reserve, eating the last individuals of some rare parrot. When the scientist comes to tell them how rare the birds are, the hunters say: “Are you kidding? These birds are common. We’ve always eaten them, and we always will.” Until the last one is gone….

    If you value something enough, you’ll do what it takes to save it. For my money, I’d go with a composting toilet or hook up to a sewage line. I don’t see any other way.

    Where I live now in Wisconsin, fish kills are relatively rare. They aren’t that hard to control. It’s algae blooms, invasive species, and other imbalances, that are increasing everywhere here, and harder to control.

    When you can’t swim, or fish, or even walk along your pond without an evil aroma, that’s a lifestyle change forced upon you. Better to make the necessary lifestyle changes that reduce pollution in our waterways–voluntarily. Changes like using a composting toilet, no fertilizer on your lawn, or even eating a lot less meat.

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