Cape Cod faces rising ‘yellow tide’| Trending Viral hub


This story was co-published with WBUR in Boston. Read their coverage at efforts to improve Cape water pollutionincluding an innovative city that considers “urine cycling. The short documentary had the support of Pulitzer Center.

Javier Lloret: There will be bad smells. There will be fish deaths. There will be a lot of algae tangled on your boat, on your propeller, on everything. And it’s not a pretty sight, you know? So in a way, we are diminishing the value of the land, which is precisely the same value that brought people here to enjoy a nice summer.

Storyteller: Javier Lloret is a research scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, a hook-shaped peninsula off Massachusetts, about 70 miles southeast of Boston.


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Lloret: One of the things we’re planning to do here, right at this location, is collect some groundwater samples… just to check the overall health of the ecosystem there.

And here we go. That’s our filter sample. We will analyze the nutrients.

Storyteller: Nearly 230,000 residents live on the Cape year-round. But in 2022 more than four million tourists visited its beaches and coasts. Tourism is big business here, bringing in $1.4 billion to the county. And, in general, those numbers grow every year.

But the cape has become a victim of its own success. More visitors and homeowners have brought rampant pollution to the area, threatening to permanently destroy its beaches and estuaries.

(CLIP: Reporter: “New report reveals Cape Cod bays and ponds continue to suffer from water pollution.”)

(CLIP: Reporter: “Cape Cod bays and ponds are contaminated with excess nutrients”).

(CLIP: Reporter: “Decades of pollution continue to threaten both human health and ecosystems”).

Storyteller: According to the Partnership to Preserve Cape Cod, a nonprofit monitoring group, in 2022, 90 percent of the area’s coastal bays required, quote, “immediate restoration,” quote, unquote. And beach closures in response to high bacteria levels are now common during the busy summer months.

What is the cause of this situation? Excess nitrogen in Cape groundwater.

Lloret: These systems are not adapted to these enormous contributions of nutrients. Humans have contributed a lot of nitrogen to the earth. Basically, what it does is cause algae to grow uncontrollably.

Storyteller: Rampant algae growth has plagued Cape estuaries for years. But now residents and scientists like Lloret fear that if nitrogen pollution is not stopped immediately, the water may never recover.

Nitrogen occurs naturally in the environment. But too much nitrogen in salt water causes excessive algae growth. Algal blooms block light from reaching plants at the bottom of the water and consume oxygen that is vital for marine life.

Around the world, nitrogen pollution has become a big problem in estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay.

But unlike the Chesapeake, the Cape’s nitrogen doesn’t come from chicken feces or agricultural fertilizers. It comes from human urine.

Lloret: Probably 90 to 95 percent of the nitrogen that reaches these waterways comes from wastewater.

Storyteller: The Cape’s nitrogen problem is due in part to its unique geology.

Cape Cod was formed almost 20,000 years ago when glaciers melted, leaving behind what is essentially a large pile of sand. This sand is extremely porous and surface water quickly seeps into groundwater. This groundwater, including contaminants, ends up reaching the shores of the Cape.

For tens of thousands of years, that was not a problem for those who lived on the cape. But since the 1970s, the population has more than doubled. Small towns became larger and houses were built with little regulation. No central sewer system was installed and most homeowners installed self-contained septic systems.

Andres Gottlieb: Well, what we see now is a cyanobacterial bloom that has been going on for about a week to 10 days.

Storyteller: Andres Gottliebdirector of the Cape Cod Preservation Association, has lived on the cape his entire life.

Gottlieb: People like Cape Cod want to come to Cape Cod. And to some extent, they love it… Across the region, we rely on 19th century technology to get rid of our wastewater, you know? Basically, we all have a hole in the backyard, and our sewage flows into it. And there is no removal of nutrients; There is not even rudimentary wastewater treatment.

Storyteller: Gottlieb and other residents are pushing to build more sewers and wastewater treatment plants to replace septic systems across the Cape.

A standard septic system has two components. A large container that has one inlet and one outlet, and a leach field that has perforated pipes surrounded by gravel or sand. Wastewater from toilets or appliances flows into a large container. Solids settle to the bottom while liquids flow into pipes and into the ground.

Gottlieb: What septic systems don’t do, and are not designed to do, is remove virtually anything from the waste stream.

Storyteller: In contrast, sewer systems capture all domestic wastewater and deliver it to a central treatment facility through a series of pipes and pump stations. The nitrogen never reaches the groundwater.

But so far, only six of Cape Cod’s 15 towns have sewer systems. And even then, only a fraction of the homes in those cities are connected. Eighty-five percent of Cape households still use septic tanks.

Gottlieb: Our position is that continued reliance on septic systems is no longer acceptable.

Lloret: I mean, we already have the technology. This is nothing new. I mean, we can just sewer the cities; we can simply connect everyone to a centralized treatment facility. Now the problem is that it is extremely expensive.

Storyteller: Officials estimate the cost of building sewers across the Cape will far exceed $4 billion. Some of that money will come from the state. Some cities in the county have also imposed a so-called “Airbnb tax” on short-term rentals. But that won’t be enough.

Mark Them: We’re going to get to a point where there will still be a gap. And we’re going to have to go to the public and ask for additional revenue.

Storyteller: Mark Them He is the city manager of Barnstable, the largest city on the Cape. Barnstable is in the early years of a 30-year plan to build sewers for all of its residents. But the city of Barnstable says that even beyond the cost, the actual construction of the sewers presents a huge engineering puzzle.

They: So the challenge is, and our residents are already feeling it, construction fatigue.

Storyteller: Construction times are limited to the months before and after the peak tourism season. Any road work chokes off the Cape’s already congested traffic. And since the pandemic, labor and construction materials remain in short supply.

But not all Cape residents are waiting for the sewers to be built. Barnstable resident Pat Uhlman replaced her old septic tank with an I/A septic system, or innovative/alternative system.

Pat Uhlman: They dug up the entire driveway and underneath where I am there is a 1,500 gallon septic tank.

In the town of Barnstable, where I live, they are expanding their sewer system. But it will probably be a good 20 years before it gets here where the ponds are. It’s going to take a long time. And I’m not so sure our water has that much time.

Storyteller: Traditional Cape septic systems can release 85 milligrams or more per liter of nitrogen into groundwater. Older I/A systems average 19 mg per liter, while newer “enhanced” I/A technologies, like this one being installed in the Uhlman neighborhood, are capable of reducing that to less than 5 mg per liter : a great improvement, but still insufficient. reduce all nitrogen in wastewater so it does not enter the Cape’s groundwater.

Brian Baumgaertel: This is a septic tank. This would be underground in your house. Most of the magic here happens underground; you can’t see most of it. We see dirty water coming in, we see clean water coming out and we know we have done the job we set out to do.

Storyteller: Brian Baumgaertel is director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic Systems Testing Center, located on the Cape. Here his team tests and certifies septic I/A technology.

Baumgaertel: Well, I guess what I would say is that anyone who believes that sewer is the only solution and anyone who believes that alternative septic systems are the only solution, they are both wrong. What we really need is a combined approach.

You know, use sewer where it makes sense, but think about “Where can you supplement sewer…?” So it’s a balance between: “How do we protect the environment?” but “How can we do that in a way that doesn’t ruin the everyday resident of Cape Cod?”

Storyteller: Other residents, like Hilda Maingay and Earle Barnhart, take it a step further. The couple live in Falmouth and are pushing to completely eliminate nitrogen by using urine diverting toilets in their home.

Count Barnhart: In our house we have a composting toilet with urine diversion that will recover all the nutrients from human waste.

There is a urine diverter compartment in the front where urine is diverted and passes through a pipe to be stored.

Urine from the urine diverting toilet goes down a tube and is stored. The solid material from the composting toilet goes directly down this tube to these bins.

Hilda Mainig: The sooner we remove this nitrogen from our wastewater or water, the faster we can restore the ecosystem. The longer we wait, the more the ecosystem has been degraded and the less likely we will be able to recover it.

Storyteller: For now, Lloret continues to monitor the levels of nitrogen and algae in the water, not knowing what the future of Cape Cod will be.

Lloret: According to my own research, what is keeping me up at night right now is the fact that, deep down, we have another major driver of change, which is climate change.

That’s why I’m very concerned that climate change has the potential to completely change the rules of the game from a scientific perspective but also from a management perspective.

We will have a new set of conditions, a new set of temperatures, new precipitation ranges that will change the delivery of nutrients from the land to these ecosystems, the ability of the landscape to absorb these nutrients.

It is very difficult to predict what will happen in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years and, of course, in 50 years. That’s something that worries me a lot.

This story was co-published with WBUR in Boston. Read their coverage at efforts to improve Cape water pollutionincluding an innovative city that considers “urine cycling. The short documentary had the support of Pulitzer Center.

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