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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Estuary Series Part 2: Upstream Development and its Effects

Air Date: Week of

On average, coastal counties are growing three times faster than other areas, and the population pressures one sees in some place like Great Bay in New Hampshire are even more visible at the southern end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts at Waquoit Bay. Intense development upstream from Waquoit generates a daily tide of household wastewater that is upsetting that ecosystem's natural balance. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports.


CURWOOD: Richard Langan, director of the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory on Great Bay, New Hampshire. On average, coastal counties are growing 3 times faster than other areas, and the population pressures one sees in Great Bay are even more visible at the southern end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at Waquoit Bay. Intense development upstream from Waquoit generates a daily tide of household waste water that's upsetting that ecosystem's natural balance. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports.

(Clanking sounds, a boat being secured and unloaded)

MAN: We went fishing this morning, buddy of mine, and we went out fluke fishing today and we caught some fluke and some striped bass...

LEMPERT: Local fishermen load the morning catch into the seafood distribution shop. Their crates are full of littlenecks, cherrystones, quahogs, and the salty smell of sea air. But there's not a scallop in sight. Matt Rocheleau owns and runs The Clam Man.

ROCHELEAU: I'm 30 now, but when I was younger, 15, 16, we used to have this town plenty of scallops every year throughout the winter. Now we have, you're lucky if you can find 10 to 15 scallops on opening day.

LEMPERT: In the mid-60s, fishermen here hauled in between 6,000 and 8,000 bushels of scallops a year. Nowadays, a good season brings in just 100 bushels. And last year, the catch totaled just 2. The trouble began when underwater eel grass meadows started to die. Eel grass is a fragile species dependent on clean water. Its disappearance is often a sign of ecosystem distress. Mike Ross is a local fisherman.

ROSS: All the years I've lived here I've never seen it this tough. When I was a little kid I used to be able to jump out in the flats and there'd be so much eel grass and you'd cut your legs on it and everything. Now there's no grass.

LEMPERT: Researchers blame Waquoit Bay's eel grass decline on pollution that comes with development. More people means more toilets and more lawn fertilizer, both large sources of nitrogen. When there's too much nitrogen, seaweed grows, eel grass withers. So, researchers are developing strategies to limit nitrogen in the water. But it's unclear whether their efforts will be enough. Since 1987, when the first comprehensive aerial photographs of the area were taken, more than 80% of Waquoit Bay's eel grass has disappeared.


LEMPERT: To get a glimpse of what the bottom of the bay used to look like, I slog through a muddy marsh with researchers from the marine biological labs in Woods Hole. This marsh borders one of the last remaining eel grass meadows in the area.

HAUXWELL: We're at Sage Lot Pond. Eel grass cover here is extensive. Densities are about 400 shoots per square meter.

LEMPERT: Biologist Jennifer Hauxwell strips down to her bathing suit, dives in, and swims back to the bank clutching a fistful of grass.

(Swimming, splashing)

HAUXWELL: Here we go.

MAN: That's beautiful-looking grass.

HAUXWELL: Just a little scoop. You can see how dense it is. And there are small shoots in there, too, and this is ...

LEMPERT: The eel grass looks a lot like the marsh grass we've been wading through. Long, slender, green blades host a whole community of small animals, including tiny white worms. Eel grass provides a safe place to spawn and a rich food source, not only for these little worms but for bay scallops, Atlantic herring, winter flounder, striped bass, and for hundreds of other species.

(An engine revs up)

LEMPERT: Just upriver, Hamblin Pond used to host a lush eel grass meadow, but no longer. Cottages line its shore. Here, as in many parts of the country and the world, people are moving to coastal areas in record numbers. Jennifer Hauxwell says the new houses that go up each week are harming the pond.

HAUXWELL: It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to live right on the water, but unfortunately it is having a negative effect on the estuary ecosystem itself.

LEMPERT: The problem with the housing boom, she explains, is household wastewater, and fertilizers used on lawns. Both are rich in nitrogen.

(Water bubbles)

LEMPERT: She dunks a bottle in the pond and it fills up with water. Later, she'll measure the amount of phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that turn water green. Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer on phytoplankton and seaweed, but it doesn't make eel grass grow any faster. Instead, it has the opposite effect. Eel grass needs a lot of light to grow. Excess nitrogen causes phytoplankton to proliferate and seaweed to grow in thick blankets, preventing light from reaching the water's bottom. We drift over an eel grass bed Jennifer Hauxwell and her colleagues have been monitoring, and peer at the pond floor through a glass-bottom view box.

HAUXWELL: We used to have shoots marked at those stakes. The shoots have disappeared.

LEMPERT: So when did you set up those pens?

HAUXWELL: One month.

LEMPERT: So there was eel grass there a month ago.

HAUXWELL: Yeah. Yeah.

LEMPERT: Removing nitrogen from wastewater would be one of the most direct ways to help resuscitate eel grass. Standard septic systems strip between a quarter to half the nitrogen from the waste stream. But that hasn't been enough to prevent damage to eel grass beds. So researchers are developing more advanced technology, designed to remove up to 95% of nitrogen from waste water. The Waquoit Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, part of a Federally-funded group of research centers, is testing out these alternative septic systems.

(A wind chime sounds)

LEMPERT: One of these test sites is across the street from the reserve at a 3- room bed and breakfast run by Janet and Tom Durkins. Tom swings open the porch door. A grassy slope separates his property from the Childs River.

T. DURKINS: We know that whatever we (laughs) flush into there is eventually going to go out this way.

(Bird song and distant breeze)

LEMPERT: The Durkins are trying out an alternative septic tank. Instead of piping waste directly into a leaching pit, it first removes nitrogen by pumping the waste water through a series of sand- and sawdust-filled chambers. Inside those chambers, bacteria convert the waste water nitrogen into harmless nitrogen gas. Septic tanks like this require periodic maintenance that homeowners can't always be relied upon to provide. Professional maintenance, plus the cost of the unit itself, can be expensive. Tom and Janet Durkins say they wouldn't have installed the system if it weren't for the grant money.

T. DURKINS: Had we had to search out that alternative, we would have spent somewhere between $10,000 to $15,000.

J. DURKINS: I don't think that the average small business owner, a B&B like this, could afford to do this.

LEMPERT: And that's the root of the problem. Denitrifying septic systems can cost $5,000 more than standard technology, and while Cape residents want their bay to be clean they aren't necessarily willing to pay for it. Ironically, the new technology could allow developers to pack even more houses and people onto the land. That's because many of the towns along the Cape regulate housing density by limiting septic emissions. So officials at the Waquoit Bay Reserve are encouraging communities to revamp their zoning regulations to give added protection to threatened areas.

(Splashing water)

LEMPERT: Researchers at the reserve are also working on other ways to revive eel grass beds. They're buying and conserving undeveloped land, allowing natural vegetation to help absorb excess nitrogen. Over the past 10 years, environmental groups have tried several times unsuccessfully to raise public funds to buy and set aside more open space. A new effort is currently underway in towns up and down the Cape. But even if voters approve the plan this time around, Christine Gault, head of the Waquoit Bay research reserve, cautions the problem of disappearing eel grass won't be solved overnight.

GAULT: Even if we stopped all the nitrogen loading today, if we stopped every house and every lawn, there is still lots of nitrogen in the groundwater, making its way down to the bay. A hundred years' worth.

(Lapping surf; fade to ambient conversation and boat horns)

LEMPERT: Families squeeze into wooden tables and benches at the Falmouth Clam Shack, gobbling down steaming platters of fried bellies and strips. It's good food like this and the picturesque view of sailboats and gulls that keeps drawing tourists and permanent residents to the area. But it's this very crush of people that's putting the Cape's beaches and seafood at risk. As researchers work to improve the view from under the water's surface, the question remains: How much are people willing to give up to bring back the eel grass and restore the estuary? For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.



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