Can We Fix the Great Bay Estuary?
All this week, NHPR’s Amy Quinton has reported on some of the challenges facing the Great Bay.
Pollution is threatening the health of the estuary, but officials are discussing ways to prevent further deterioration.
In the last part of her series, environment reporter Amy Quinton takes a look at possible solutions.
It’s quiet here on the Great Bay .
At mid-morning on this clear day, the water is almost as blue as the sky.
It’s low tide, and small waves gently roll into the rocky shores.
In the distance, terns dive for small fish that jump from the waters.
Looking at this idyllic scene, it’s almost painful to remember this estuary is suffering.
It’s suffering from too much nitrogen, too much sediment, too much stormwater runoff, and too much human waste.
Its eelgrass beds are disappearing, and its once abundant oyster population is now a small fraction of what it was.
But for Derek Sowers, it’s not too late to rescue the Great Bay.
He’s a conservation program manager with the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, or PREP.
“ we don’t want to paint the picture that it’s too far gone to save that’s not at all the case, it’s still incredibly important for many species and has abundant wildlife.”
But Sowers says to keep it that way, and even to repair some of the damage, people have to act now.
PREP is finishing up a comprehensive management plan for the estuary.
But Sowers says it was overwhelming even deciding where to start..
“the area we’re looking at covers 52 different towns in both NH and Maine, so we’re working not only across state boundaries but with many municipalities, and there’s some state laws that have certain protections, but in a lot of cases the level of protection given to natural resources in the Coast is really largely up to the towns to determine.”
So many towns , cities, counties and even states means different rules governing land protection, zoning, stormwater regulations and other critical components that help keep the Great Bay clean.
PREP may get some help.
Last year, the New Hampshire legislature created the Southeast Watershed Alliance.
The SWA is a regional organization of municipalities within the Great Bay watershed.
Right now 30 of the 42 towns in the watershed have appointed representatives.
Stratham resident Michael Perfit is the Secretary.
“what we want to do is to develop a program of multiple things that we can do to help the Bay, and work on those that are the least expensive and effective first.”
Right now the organization may be able to work only on the least expensive solutions.
The Legislature didn’t provide the SWA with any funding for the job.
But Perfit says some of those solutions would include developing common standards for things like stormwater management and protections for streams and rivers that flow into the Bay.
Derek Sowers with PREP says creating policies now can prevent future expenses for towns.
“ instead of paying for expensive fixes for stormwater management once development comes in and is poorly done, we want to have policies that make sure the development is done right the first time”
Looking at the least expensive solutions is particularly important for many of the towns.
They already face tougher federal standards for wastewater treatment, and that could end up costing millions.
At a recent SWA meeting, Exeter’s Public Works Director Jennifer Perry expressed those concerns.
“The issues we’re facing are so expensive for all of our communities and if we’re really going to be successful we need to leverage local , state and federal funds.”
Perry suggests that by working together the towns in the SWA may be able to apply for bigger grants as a group to help achieve the same goals.
The EPA’s New Hampshire Director Carl DeLoi attended the SWA meeting.
The EPA is responsible for issuing the wastewater permits that largely determine what upgrades communities will face.
DeLoi stressed that those permits, which will limit nitrogen pollution, will protect the Bay’s water quality.
But he also indicated that if communities can come up with convincing alternative, the EPA might delay stricter regulations.
“I guess what I’m looking for is new approaches that can be demonstrated and hopefully fairly quickly, that we can get behind, certainly innovation is going to be part of this solution, the same old approach as usual probably won’t work.”
Dr. Richard Langan, the Director of Ocean and Technology Programs at UNH agrees.
“ you have to be looking at the entire problem, you can’t just pick one thing out, and then you can’t pick out just one source and deal with that because even if you took out all the nitrogen coming from the wastewater treatment plants, you’d still have too much nitrogen coming in.”
Langan says oysters, which help filter and clean water in the Bay, should be a big part of the solution.
He say private aquaculture, or oyster farms, could help clean the bay without costing communities or non-profit organizations a lot of money.
“the big difference between restoring oysters and private aquaculture is you’re not necessarily footing the bill, because you have entrepreneurs out there that are growing something and then selling it, and in the process of harvesting, they’re extracting the nitrogen from the water, rather than just sequestering it and clearing the water.”
Private aquaculture probably won’t solve all the problems in the Great Bay, but Langan says it will help.
Another potential solution is creating a nutrient trading system to improve water quality.
It’s similar to a carbon cap and trade system like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
But instead of trading carbon credits, wastewater treatment plants could trade nitrogen credits.
Langan says nitrogen trading could also work in other ways.
“ A wastewater treatment plant, maybe its going to cost them a whole bundle of money to get to the lowest concentration of nitrogen, but if they go somewhere in between and then they trade for supporting restoration or supporting startups for aquaculture there might be some innovative solutions we can come up with”
If there is one thing that everyone concerned about the Great Bay agrees with, it’s that there is no silver bullet that will make the Bay healthy again.
It’s going to take time, and it’s going to cost money.
It means changing the way we develop land, treat our lawns, and treat our waste.
As PREP coastal scientist Phil Trowbridge explains, the Great Bay’s beauty, its abundant natural resources, and its biodiversity were the qualities that led the EPA to designate it as an estuary of national significance.
It’s one of only 28 in the country to have that recognition.
“The Great Bay is a national treasure in our back yard, like Lake Winnipesaukee, like Mount Washington, Great Bay is one of those places that makes New Hampshire special.”
And that, everyone would agree, is worth saving.