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Cleaning Up the Cape's Algae Problem

Cleaning Up the Cape's Algae Problem

Conservation Law Foundation

Rotten eggs and black mayonnaise—sights and smells that, to the dread of many, are becoming increasingly common across Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Over the past 30 years, increased development and insufficient wastewater treatment systems have degraded the quality of Cape Cod’s waters. Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), in association with Buzzards Bay Coalition, are working to clean up the Cape—work that was recently covered by David Abel in The Boston Globe.

The eggs and mayonnaise (a description Abel used to open his piece) are but two signs of a growing body of evidence, both visible and disturbing, of degraded water quality. While visitors and residents depend upon Cape Cod’s pristine waterways—suitable for swimming and conducive to ocean life—instead they find ponds and bays that, in warm months, can be covered in a film of algae, while the water itself turns an opaque copper color.

This degradation is the consequence of too much nitrogen, the result of improperly treated wastewater, primarily from the Cape’s preponderance of septic tanks. In the Cape’s loose, sandy soils, wastewater moves quickly through the ground and is carried into the bays and estuaries before it can be adequately filtered. The region’s economy, ecology, recreation and beauty have all suffered as a consequence, and will suffer more if stakeholders continue to delay action on a clean-up plan.

In September, the staff at CLF, together with Buzzards Bay Coalition, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Our claim— that the EPA failed to fulfill its responsibilities to oversee a regional water quality plan as required by the Clean Water Act. This lawsuit was CLF’s second showing EPA’s failure to address the Cape’s nitrogen pollution problem. The first, concerning point sources, was filed in August 2010, and can be found here.

Why is this so important? The regional plan under question has not been updated since 1978, despite predictions at the time about the environmental risks of unchecked nitrogen pollution. Today, the consequences of decades of inaction are clear—badly degraded waterways with mounting costs for solutions and little time left to ponder them while the region’s ecology and economy hang in the balance..

The answer, CLF argues, is a legally enforceable, coordinated blueprint to clean up the Cape. “It’s our firm belief that a coordinated regional approach is necessary—not individual towns trying to solve the problems on their own,” says Christopher Kilian, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, as quoted in The Boston Globe article.

The approach EPA will ultimately take is the subject of ongoing negotiations between CLF and the Buzzards Bay Coalition, EPA and Barnstable County officials. A report to the court is due Dec. 6. Stay tuned.

For more on CLF’s efforts on cleaning up the Cape, read the release on our recent lawsuit, filed with the Buzzards Bay Coalition.

For more information, click here.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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