Acting Now for Great Bay's Future

Our marshes, oyster reefs and seagrass meadows are important to the health of nature and the people that live in or around them: many species use these systems as nurseries; shellfish clean and filter the water; grasses trap sediment; and marshes buffer the mainland from coastal storms. But increasing pressure on our oceans and estuaries is causing the breakdown of many of these processes, including those in New Hampshire’s own Great Bay. EPA Regional Administrator for New England, Curt Spalding, offers his perspective on why we need to act now to protect Great Bay in a recent edition of the Portsmouth Herald.

Why We Need to Act Now to Protect Great Bay

Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator of EPA’s New England Office
Portsmouth Herald
April 17, 2011

The Great Bay ecosystem is one of the stunning natural places that New England is known for, and which make our part of the country so special. Great Bay supports local economies, provides fantastic recreation and supreme natural beauty to hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors alike.

Right now, Great Bay needs our help.

In the Great Bay we are witnessing a problem that is occurring in many other places, both in New England and across America. Unchecked pollution threatens to choke the ecological underpinnings of a vibrant resource.

The pollution problem now is uncontrolled nitrogen that feeds more and more plants growing within the bay. All the plants block sunlight needed by other organisms in deeper water. Then, when the plants die and decay, they use too much of the oxygen in the water so that it is unavailable for fish and other living things.

As nitrogen levels have increased in the Great Bay estuary, we are losing eelgrass beds, one of the most highly productive and biologically diverse habitats on earth. Eelgrass beds provide spawning and nursery habitat for many aquatic species — including commercially valuable fish and shellfish.

There is currently a lot of local concern about the EPA's proposal to require municipal water treatment plants in the Great Bay estuary to begin to upgrade their facilities to control nitrogen. Some people are saying there's much left to learn, so we should continue to study the issue. Others say there are too many other sources of nitrogen entering the bay, so we shouldn't start with municipal treatment plants. And, some assert that it's simply too expensive right now for our communities to afford.

We understand these concerns, and why they are being raised. Let me just say: The EPA is not in the business of bankrupting communities, and we're not about to start now.

What is undeniable is that the problem is real. Nitrogen levels have been rising for decades and are causing greater ecological damage every year. It's a problem that won't go away by itself, and we shouldn't let efforts to reduce scientific uncertainty in some areas, get in the way of starting the important work we already know must be done. This problem will keep getting worse if we don't take action.

The fact is, the municipal water treatment plants are not the only source of nitrogen. But they are a significant contributor, and they will need to be addressed as part of whatever becomes the eventual overall solution to this problem.

That's why I decided to act now for Great Bay's future by proposing a new permit limit for Exeter's wastewater treatment plant. We welcome public comment on the permit, and we intend to consider all public input and to deliberate on the permit for several months. Because of the time needed for planning and designing changes to a treatment plant, actual upgrades to any wastewater plant in the Great Bay watershed is years away. During this time, a solid plan to address the other difficult-to-control sources of nitrogen will need to be developed if we are to succeed in protecting and restoring Great Bay.

If we don't take action collectively and aggressively soon, then our lakes, rivers and bays will continue to degrade, suffering from algae blooms, supporting less life, in turn diminishing our communities, our economy and our quality of life.

Here at the EPA, I welcome the debate. It is entirely appropriate, and indeed is helpful. Finding a solution to the nutrient pollution problem is one of the greatest environmental challenges now facing us. We recognize that Washington can't create a one-size-fit all solution. We also understand that communities and local governments are strapped for funds, and are juggling many competing priorities. However, this problem won't go away by itself — we need to work together and begin to tackle it now if we want to preserve one of New Hampshire's greatest treasures.

Curt Spalding is regional administrator of the EPA's New England office in Boston.

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