A speech by Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell at the Ocean Outfall Symposium - May 25, 2011, Yarmouth.

 

I am pleased to be here this morning to talk about the number one environmental challenge Cape Cod faces - nutrient loading to our waterways. The Cape's water bodies, particularly the estuaries on south facing beaches but also in our ponds and other waterways, are degrading due to the dramatic increase in population and corresponding pollution and the lack of effective control of nitrogen and phosphorous by conventional Title 5 septic systems. I am also pleased to convey personally MassDEP's unwavering commitment to make sure this problem is solved and to work with you to do so.

I am a member of the Cape Cod community, and I love it here. My wife's family has been coming to the Cape since the early 1900s, and we have a summer home in Eastham. My children learned to swim in Great Pond, upon which our property borders. We watch sunsets at First Encounter Beach, and we bike on the world class bike trail from Wellfeet to Brewster. I hope to see one day that trail from Provincetown to Sandwich and ride on it with family.

It is a top priority for all of us Cape Codders to solve this problem. In the long run, the Cape Cod that you and I love depends upon it. None of us want the eelgrass beds to disappear, for shellfish to vanish, and to see and smell clumps of organic matter decaying on the shoreline. None of us want to see a water body we love be ruined.

But unfortunately that has started happening.

That's started happening a bit for me in Great Pond, where by mid- summer the weeds have grown so tall you can't swim much below the surface and the weeds wrap around your legs when you try to kick.

But this is not merely personal. MassDEP is the state agency in charge of making sure that all of our water bodies meet water quality standards for swimming and fishing, and we cannot sit idly by when our bays on the Cape fail. Meeting those standards requires that we lower nitrogen and phosphorous levels, bring back oxygen levels in our water bodies, and restore the eelgrass and the benthic organisms and the shellfish and fish populations that flourish in healthy bays. It means that we will have to make a significant investment now in the future of Cape Cod - to preserve the water bodies we love , and at the same time ensure the long-term economic health of the Cape as a place that draws people to it.

To make MassDEP an effective partner, since I started in January, I have had the pleasure of meeting with many of you about this problem. I have met with a variety of people and organizations who are very involved with this issue, including representatives of the Cape Cod Commission, the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, CLF, Clean Water Action, your great new Senator Dan Wolf, and a number of extremely thoughtful, Cape Cod residents who have taken the time to study the problem. I am not done with that consultation, and am looking forward to meetings on the Cape with municipal officials and others who I can learn from.

I have also had extensive briefings from a dedicated and talented staff at MassDEP, who are doing everything they can to make sure that there is top-notch science available to guide our choices. The solutions to these problems will not be simple or easily achieved. So it is clear that as we move forward to design effective and cost-efficient solutions to this monumental challenge, we need to consider all available alternatives. Today's symposium is a worthwhile effort to further explore the feasibility and issues surrounding ocean outfalls. I commend all of you for the thoughtful approach to discussing this option.

This morning, however, rather than focus on any particular option, I would like to lay out some general principles that I hope will guide our collective discussion going forward.

First, we need to address and resolve any remaining questions about the science. We believe that the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) has done solid work.

I know some have raised sincere questions about the MEP, and we need to hear those questions and make sure that we have the best available science. But we can't be paralyzed by doubts, or strive for perfection, because perfection is the enemy of the good. The question we need to ask is whether the science is strong enough now to form the basis for making responsible decisions. If we are not there yet, let's figure out what else we need to know, and do it quickly... because time is wasting.

Second. We need to think and act regionally to solve the problem. Cape Cod has a sole source aquifer. Groundwater moves through that common aquifer across town lines. All towns contribute to the problem, and all of the towns will need to play a role in solving it - because each town has a stake in the environmental and economic health of the Cape, no matter what its percentage contribution to the nitrogen in our estuaries. This will mean, for the Cape towns, a need to think outside town boundaries and embrace acting jointly with your neighboring communities. And we at MassDEP will be thinking hard in the coming months about the ways we can use our regulatory powers and financial leverage to encourage and reward regional approaches.

Now it is highly fortunate that Cape Cod is uniquely poised to act regionally, because in contrast to everywhere else in the Commonwealth you still have a form of county government. And you have strong regional institutions like the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Light Compact. You already know how to think regionally, and work together to achieve a common goal. This experience should be built-upon to allow the Cape to achieve new models for collective action aimed at bolstering the common good. MassDEP will be working with municipalities to explore all feasible regional options and will help communities explore financial incentives and other options to make regional solutions a reality.

Third. As we work to develop solutions, all options must be on the table - we need to consider a variety of solutions, including various technologies, ranging from traditional centralized solutions, to innovative decentralized or on-site systems. We also need to consider innovative "non-technology approaches" such as nitrogen attenuation through wetlands and cranberry bogs, oyster harvesting, or increased flushing through expansion of inlets or culverts. We need to stay away from a one-size-fits-all approach, and avoid preconceptions that may keep us from arriving at the best solutions. That means that those who are pushing for conventional sewering remedies for a portion of the Cape's wastewater needs need to listen to those who believe there are a host of other alternatives - and not gravitate to the familiar solution just because it is more familiar.

It also means, however that those who are pushing for alternatives need to listen to those who point out that there may be some areas on the Cape that cannot tolerate any additional nitrogen loadings, where eliminating all loadings at the source is the only alternative, and that sewering may be the only cost-effective alternative to the severity and scale of the problem in those areas.

Fourth, we need an adaptive management approach. The Cape Cod ecosystem is dynamic and complex with a constantly changing shoreline, and as much as we try to understand it with data or predict its future with modeling, ultimately there is a lot we cannot know in advance. So devising a plan that pilots a number of different remedial alternatives, observing and measuring those alternatives carefully, understanding what works and why, and evolving the plan accordingly is very important to the overall success.

I believe that if we follow these principals, we not only will solve the problem on Cape Cod, but we can be a state model for how towns can go beyond home rule to solve problems regionally.

And even to become a national model for working together on a problem that many other communities are facing, such as Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, and Narragansett Bay.

And I want to remind everyone that the Patrick Administration and Cape Cod have a great track record of solving problems together. We only need to think back a little over a year ago, when we worked together to finish, on time and under budget, the nation's first Ocean Plan. All of you were our partners in that undertaking. We worked together to forge a common vision for ocean stewardship, and along the way we resolved a number of challenging dilemmas, about how to protect the ecology and existing uses of the ocean while fostering new uses, such as offshore wind and tidal energy. I believe that the nitrogen loading problem is even more challenging. It will be harder to find consensus, and much more expensive to implement it. But it can, and must be done, and MassDEP will be here working with you to make sure it happens.