Letter: WOTUS and the Clean Water Act Jurisdictional Changes

from Dr. David Dow, East Falmouth

Letters to the editor are the opinion of the letter writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors, staff and advertisers of Cape Cod Today.

Letter to the editor:

I have been following the Environmental Protection Agency’s changes to Waters of the US (WOTUS) and how it might effect the Waquiot Bay Watershed where I live on Cape Cod.  The Ashumet Valley Plume from Joint Base Cape Cod underlies the Yearling Meadows development where I live and is contaminated by perfluroinated chemicals which have effected public and private drinking water sources in Falmouth and Mashpee.  

The Air Force  Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) has been installing Granular Activated Carbon Treatment systems to remove PFOS and PFOA from the contaminated drinking water to levels below 70 parts per trillion.  Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of developing a maximum of contaminant level of 20 ppt for 6 PFAS chemicals which will likely result in more of our drinking water being listed as contaminated with toxic chemicals.  AFCEC and the Groundwater Installation Restoration Program closed the Falmouth Ashumet Valley Public Water Supply in the mid-1980’s as part of their cleanup of the Ashumet Valley Plume under the Safe Drinking Water Act/Superfund (CERCLA) jurisdiction (which is being overseen by EPA Region 1 and Ma. DEP).  The US Geological Survey has been conducting supporting scientific studies for the cleanup endeavor.

When I worked at the Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, I participated in the EPA-lead Waquoit Bay Watershed Ecological  Risk Assessment project which identified nutrients as the the major human stressor in the watershed.  Nitrogen caused water quality problems and loss of habitat in Waquoit Bay, while phosphorus was the culprit in Ashumet Pond.  Falmouth is developing a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan to reduce “N” loading from septic systems for 14 watersheds under section 208 of the Clean Water Act.  It appears to me that EPA’s WOTUS changes in the CWA jurisdiction eliminates groundwater-based based watersheds from EPA’s oversight.  I tried contacting EPA Region 1 on this concern, but received no reply.

There has been discussion on having the Town of Barnstable take over operation of the wastewater treatment plant at JBCC and have it utilized by Bourne; Falmouth; Mashpee and Sandwich.  This WWTP discharges its effluent into the Cape Cod Canal which could pose challenges for increasing contaminants of emerging concern (cec) which have been found in the ocean waters adjacent to Cape Cod. Falmouth spent $ 50 million sewering the Little Pond Watershed, so that doing this for 13 other watersheds and operating the JBCC WWTP will be an expensive endeavor for both infrastructure and operation/maintance costs.  The Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plans (CWMPs) being developed under the jurisdiction of the Cape Cod Commission/Ma. DEP/EPA Region 1assumes that 50% of the infrastructure costs will be covered by state/federal grants which seems overly optimistic to me considering the WOTUS changes to the CWA jurisdiction.

In Waquoit Bay itself, warming waters, increased ocean acidity and “N” enrichment accompanied by periodic low oxygen conditions in the bottom waters has harmed the Essential Fish Habitat for inshore fisheries.  A good example is the loss of bay scallops as the eelgrass beds disappeared.  Oyster reefs and salt marsh habitat have also been impacted by “N” enrichment; increased ocean acidity and warming waters which result from global warming. and human activities in coastal watersheds.  The federal fisheries Omnibus Habitat Amendment 2 under the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act includes protections for Essential Fish Habitat in state jurisdictional waters (0-3 miles).

The Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan (MOMP) jurisdiction extends from 0.3 to 3 miles, so that is ignores the consequences of human activities in coastal watersheds on  both embayment water quality and habitat degradation.

The CWMPs rarely mention how they plan to restore habitats like oyster beds; salt marshes and eelgrass beds which have been designated as EFH by the New England Fisheries Management Council and NOAA Fisheries GARFO (Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office).

Similar water quality and habitat loss issues occur in Ashumet  Pond from “phosphorus” enrichment from the former JBCC wastewater treatment plant (one of the sources of the Ashumet Valley Plume).  A permeable reactive barrier with iron filings as been constructed to intercept some of the “P” loading from the AVP, while alum treatment reduces the loading of “P” from sediments in the deeper parts of the pond.  This has improved the water quality in the pond and supported a recreational fishery for introduced fish species.  There are still periodic cyanobacterias blooms which produce toxins in the Summer and low dissolved oxygen levels in the bottom waters when the pond is stratified. In addition, Ashumet Pond has been identified as a source of PFAS contamination which exacerbates the source cleanup process (former fire training area is another source).

When I engaged in the  WOTUS online dialog carried out by EPA and the the US Army Corps of Engineers, they didn’t  mention science or environmental protection, but instead concentrated on President Trump’s Executive Order to reduce environmental constraints to business development; new definition of “federalism” and former Supreme Court Judge Scalia’s narrow interpretation of WOTUS (which has recently been implement by EPA for the CWA jurisdiction).  Under the new concept of “federalism”, EPA will not impose environmental mandates on state/local governments, but if they choose to take environmental action they will have to pay for it with their own funding sources.  Given the water quality problems and habitat losses in the Waquoit Bay watershed where I live, I found this new policy approach to be quite disturbing.  Hopefully the Barnstable  County and town governments and planning/regulatory entities (Cape Cod Commission and Ma. DEP) will come up with solutions to fund the ambitious environmental agendas being proposed for Cape Cod. As retired marine scientist and grassroots environmental activist living on Cape Cod, I don’t have much influence on dealing with this dilemma.


Dr. David Dow

East Falmouth, Ma.


CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.