Bays Spared Freshwater Waste, UMass Study Finds

Not too long ago, scientists believed that septic pollution and other similar waste in freshwater streams and rivers also posed a threat to the many saltwater bays on the coast.

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Not too long ago, scientists believed that septic pollution and other similar waste in freshwater streams and rivers also posed a threat to the many saltwater bays on the coast.

The theory was that nearly all of the wastewater, lawn fertilizers and runoff polluting freshwater river systems ends up in saltwater estuaries such as Mount Hope Bay.

But the scientific community now believes much of this waste never reaches the estuaries. A project led by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is piling up evidence to support the new theory.

After two years of data gathering and analysis, the most comprehensive estuaries project in state history is finding that water quality problems along the Massachusetts coast are less daunting than officials previously had thought.

"... Everybody should take some comfort in the fact that the technical reports are showing that the problem is manageable," said Andrew Gottlieb, a water quality expert with the Department of Environmental Protection.

In recent days, the university has released some of the project's findings as the six-year, $12.5-million project approaches a halfway point.

The primary goal of the project is figuring out exactly how much manmade, nitrogen-type waste can be dumped into an estuary before the saltwater bay sustains major environmental damage.

Nitrogen is an element that, among other things, supports aquatic plant life.

An unnaturally high supply of nitrogen can make a saltwater bay thick with algae.

That carries an ecological effect. It prevents sunlight from penetrating the water and supporting plants like eelgrass, an important part of the habitat for blue crabs and scallops.

For this reason, policymakers have developed strict standards for waste discharges near estuaries, and, in some cases, for discharges near freshwater river systems.

But the UMass research could find that the most expensive types of septic and sewer systems, or wastewater treatment facilities, may not be needed in those settings, according to Brian Howes, who is leading the research project.

In Wareham for instance, the analysis has determined that about 100,000 pounds of nitrogen inputs are dumped into two rivers that feed a major saltwater estuary, the Wareham River.

Less than half of that nitrogen actually reaches the estuary, Howes said.

"That makes the solution cheaper and easier and more affordable," he added.

The project started monitoring water quality on Mount Hope Bay last summer, but it still hasn't analyzed the influx of nitrogen products.

To date, Howes and other scientists have finished analyzing 12 river systems on the Cape.

They are monitoring water and working on analysis for 37 other systems between Plymouth and the Rhode Island border.

Howes said he hopes to intensify the project's efforts in the Taunton River watershed about a year from now.

As of yesterday, he didn't believe Mount Hope Bay had any eelgrass left.

"If there's any left, we're having a hard time finding it," he said.

But he believes the same optimistic trends identified on the Cape will bear out locally.

The research has determined that restoring ponds and wetlands that have been drained helps foster the process by which nitrogen is absorbed into the atmosphere, also known as denitrification.

This protects estuaries from pollution, Howes said.

The project has also found that most people on Cape Cod are using far less lawn fertilizer than the amounts recommended for superior lawn maintenance, according to Howes.

About half of the homeowners surveyed for the study don't even use fertilizer, he said. Such behavior is important for the health of estuaries.

"Just by a change in behavior," he said, "... you can increase the total load of nitrogen by 10 percent."

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