Environment
5:42 pm
Fri December 7, 2012

Seacoast Scientists Say Great Bay Is In "Stasis"

The Great Bay Estuary has been called the most studied estuary in the country, and many who watch this ecosystem worry that it is on the verge of a collapse
The Great Bay Estuary has been called the most studied estuary in the country, and many who watch this ecosystem worry that it is on the verge of a collapse
Credit Flikr Creative Commons / Rickpilot_2000

A new report out Friday finds that the Great Bay Estuary is still struggling. Every 3 years the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, or PREP releases its State Of Our Estuaries report. The report’s data plays into an ongoing battle over the cost of new wastewater treatment plants on the seacoast.

If you’ve been following the efforts of conservation groups on the Seacoast, PREP’s data from the last three years are no big surprise.

Of 14 indicators of ecosystem health six – like nitrogen contamination, Oyster and Clam populations, and oxygen levels for fish to breath – have gotten worse. Four have improved – like toxic chemical levels, and levels of bacteria and ecosystem suffocating algae – and five more are unchanged.

The scientists working on the report say the situation is pretty much stasis.

Debate Over The Science

Take eelgrass, for example, the keystone species of the estuary. Its roots keep sediments from getting stirred up and making the water too cloudy for plants, and it’s a good place for fish to live.

PREP’s coastal scientists, Philip Trowbridge says the report, which is backed by a technical advisory board of 31 scientists and environmentalists, shows more of the same for eelgrass.

Trowbridge: So the data on this graph indicate a long term decline in eelgrass. Due to the variability, even recent gains in eelgrass still indicate an overall declining trend.

But if you’ve been following the efforts of Great Bay communities to find wiggle room in the EPA mandate to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on improved waste water treatment, you might have heard the opposite conclusion

Peschel: The recent data from the Great Bay Estuary shows that there have been significant decreases in Nitrogen levels, and increases in eelgrass populations in Great Bay and Little Bay during the years 2009 through 2011.

That’s Dean Peschel, an environmental consultant working for the city of Dover, earlier this year. Dover is one of five communities trying to prove that regulators are relying on bad science when setting waste water permits.

But scientist Trowbridge says estuaries are an extremely complicated place, and looking at just three years’ worth of eelgrass is like trying to tell if the climate is changing by looking at a few years of temperatures: it’s not enough to draw conclusions.

Credit PREP State of Our Estuaries Report

The data released today is the definitive science on the issue, and all of the luminaries in the water quality world were there for its release in Portsmouth.

Staggering Costs

But even if you accept the science, there’s a staggering cost behind fixing this problem. Ben Grumbles is the president of the US Water Alliance, which is working to lay-out and find solutions to water quality issues all over the country.

Grumbles: No matter whose numbers you believe, whether it’s EPA’s 300 billion plus needs and wastewater over the next 20 years and they’re 330 billion needs in drinking water infrastructure over next several years, or the AWWA, which is the American Water Works Association, their national report on 900 billion needed for adapting infrastructure systems in a climate change era … a trillion here a trillion there, pretty soon we’re talking about real money.

That’s what’s happening today in the Great Bay watershed.

Earlier this week the Great Bay Municipal Coalition – that’s Rochester, Portsmouth, Newmarket, Dover and Exeter – called together lawmakers from the area to hear about what clean water regulation could cost.

John Hall, a lawyer hired by the cities to fight the EPA, says the difference between the most stringent waste water permits issued by the EPA and a middle of the road permit is about $200 million dollars. Communities say these plants could almost double sewer rates.

Hall: And then we’ll talk about the regulatory effects of the proposed permits, because I can assure you they are going to be profound.

Hall claims the only way the state can achieve the reductions in pollutants talked about in the EPA water quality permits is to require homeowners to update their individual septic tanks, to the tune of $15,000 dollars a family.

But according to the DES watershed director Ted Diers says nobody can say yet if anything of the sort is going to be required. He says, before any action is taken, we need a comprehensive study these non-point source pollutants – think septic tanks, yard fertilizer, and agricultural run-off.

Deirs: Then you can really start to hone in on, okay, where’s the low hanging fruit.

Years Of Delay

That said, everyone in the water quality world is in agreement: getting to a cleaner Great Bay is going to cost a lot of money. Ben Grumbles of the US water alliance thinks creative solutions are going to be needed, to share those costs around.

Grumbles: There are models of success, looking at agriculture, atmospheric deposition, bringing the business community to the table, so it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of the rate payer.

This report is just one piece in what’s going to be a long process: the great bay municipalities are also calling for a comprehensive peer reviewed study, and say they can delay new treatment plants for years to come.

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