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The Time to Act on Cape Cod Water Quality Is Now

Contact Information: 
Press Office

By:          Alexandra Dunn, Regional Administrator
                U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New England Region

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, Cape Cod tourism springs to life – visitors return, rental properties fill up and beaches start to get crowded. The Cape's tourism economy depends on a healthy environment, and EPA, like many Cape municipalities and their residents, is concerned about its water quality in ponds, streams, and coastal waters.

Cape Cod is experiencing wide-spread environmental problems due to too much nitrogen pollution entering its coastal waters. A primary source of nitrogen pollution is from septic systems, traveling in groundwater through sandy soil and eventually entering local waterways. Another source is in stormwater runoff, flowing off impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs.

When too much nitrogen is released into marine waters it supports the growth of algae. Too much algae can hurt marine life, is aesthetically unpleasant, and in extreme cases can be dangerous. Cape Cod is known for its beautiful beaches and ponds, so it's important to act quickly.

The time to act is now. EPA is committed to helping restore water quality on the Cape. We worked closely with the Commonwealth and Cape Cod Commission to develop a regional strategy – the "208 Plan," named for a section of the Clean Water Act – which provides a framework for all entities, including the 15 Cape Cod municipal governments and other non-governmental organizations, to work together to protect and improve water quality tailored to and appropriate for all 53 watersheds on the Cape. The 208 Plan helps keep the focus on finding solutions for each unique watershed, with municipalities collaborating and working together, and allowing the decision-making to remain local.

EPA, the State, towns, and partners across Massachusetts have been working to develop solutions and technologies to solve this problem.

Through the Southeast New England Program for coastal watershed restoration, EPA has funded approximately $5 million in grants supporting projects such as developing innovative septic systems that remove nitrogen, and investigating the feasibility and effectiveness of aquaculture in removing nitrogen from marine waters. EPA has also performed other work to find solutions for Cape water issues, helping towns get from conceptual plans to in-the-ground projects as efficiently as possible. These have included guidelines for siting permeable reactive barriers that filter nitrogen from groundwater, evaluating how sewering projects affect local coastal water quality, and installing stormwater collection areas to remove nitrogen from road and parking lot runoff.

EPA is very encouraged that Cape Cod towns are engaging in a substantive, action-oriented planning process to restore and maintain the health of their coastal waters. As towns finalize their plans to meet goals and timelines, it is critical that they work together to solve problems affecting their shared waters and that they commit the resources necessary to turn their plans into action.

We applaud efforts like the one being carried out among the four Pleasant Bay communities of Harwich, Chatham, Brewster and Orleans. Residents recently supported adoption of a new joint action plan designed to restore the Bay and directed their town leaders to sign an agreement spelling out each town's commitment to reducing the amount of nitrogen released into Pleasant Bay. These towns are also working with MassDEP and the Cape Cod Commission to develop a first-of-its-kind state watershed permit that is expected to be issued this summer.

There is a lot of planning that goes into a large-scale nitrogen reduction effort across 53 watersheds and 15 different towns. This effort requires checks and balances, and EPA will continue to track progress to ensure that timely action is taken. We are proud to be part of this work, and we are proud of the Cape Cod municipal governments, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Cape Cod Commission for working together to find cost-effective, local solutions.

The Cape's economy and the health of its ecosystem are intrinsically linked. We all agree that the water quality challenge must be met. Now is the time for Cape Cod towns to step forward and protect Cape Cod's waters. Nothing less than the future of the Cape is at stake, and EPA is committed to work side-by-side with you to help solve this problem.