Human Waste & Climate Change Are Destroying Old Cape Cod

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Patti Page — born Clara Ann Fowler — was one of America’s favorite singers in the 1950s. If you are a baby boomer, you can still hear snippets of “The Tennessee Waltz” and “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” in those moments of reverie when you remember America in the golden years after World War II. Patti Page also sang “Old Cape Cod,” a paean to one of America’s most historic and favorite vacation spots. Below is a YouTube video of the song that has been lovingly overlaid with images of Cape Cod.

Both my wife and I have a deep connection to Cape Cod. We love to stroll along its salt marshes and dunes, which look very much the same as they did when the Pilgrims first came ashore near Provincetown and promptly gunned down the first native person they encountered. They thought they were on the way to someplace along the Atlantic seaboard, but were stymied by the currents and sand bars around Monomoy island and turned north instead, ending up in Plymouth quite by accident.

Cape Cod Is A Magical Place


Image credit: Google Maps

The Cape is a magical place, especially along Route 6A, which meanders along Cape Cod Bay through towns so quaint and perfectly preserved they make you feel like you have stepped back in time a century or two. That road eventually brings you the Three Sisters of Nauset and the magnificent National Seashore that limns the coastline between Orleans and Race Point near Provincetown.

But…. There’s always a “but,” isn’t there? Cape Cod is dying. It is literally drowning in the detritus of human civilization — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution on the land and along its miles of estuaries.

One of its most iconic towns is Mashpee, a bucolic wonderland that is home to 15,000 year-round residents and includes a reservation for the Wampanoag tribe. One of the principal components of the diet for the Indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years were oysters. These crustaceans once grew so thick along the shores of Cape Cod they were considered a hazard to navigation. The oyster is essentially a natural filter. Each one can clean up to 50 gallons of water a day. Imagine the impact that millions of them had on the bays and estuaries of Cape Cod!

Today, the oyster beds have been decimated by algae blooms fed by phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from the land. And where does much of that runoff come from? From antiquated or inadequate septic systems. The rest is from fertilizers used by a few farmers and lots of Cape Cod residents who treasure a nice green lawn around their quaint little Cape Cod cottage with its gray shingles and white trim.

Reporter Christopher Flavelle of the New York Times visited Mashpee recently to interview Ashley Fisher, the town’s director of natural resources, who is on a mission to discover the cause of the town’s declining oyster population. She found some oysters at the bottom of the Mashpee River in gray-black goo that smelled like garbage and felt like mayonnaise. The muck gets deeper every year, suffocating whatever tries to grow there. It came up to Ms. Fisher’s waist. She struggled to free herself and climb back aboard. “I did not think I was going to sink down that far,” she said. Her colleagues once had to yank a stranded resident out of the gunk by tying him to a motorboat and opening the throttle.

The muck is what becomes of the poisonous algae that is taking over more of Cape Cod’s rivers and bays each summer. The algal explosion is fueled by warming waters, combined with rising levels of nitrogen that come from septic systems. A population boom over the past half century means more human waste flushed into toilets, which then finds its way into waterways. More waste also means more phosphorus entering the Cape’s freshwater ponds, where it feeds cyanobacteria, a type of algae that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and liver damage, among other health effects. It can also kill pets.

The result is expanding aquatic dead zones and shrinking shellfish harvests, the collapse of vegetation like eelgrass — a buffer against worsening storms, water too dangerous to touch, and a smell Fisher describes rather charitably, as “earthy. The changes threaten the natural features that define Cape Cod and have made it a cherished destination for generations, the Times says.

The concentration of nitrogen in the Mashpee River can reach three times the maximum safe threshold established by state officials, according to readings from 2021. The average August water temperature in Popponesset Bay jumped from 68.2 degrees Fahrenheit in 2007 to 76.5 degrees this year. The main culprit is climate change, Fisher says, but adds the rising muck has also created a feedback loop that accelerates the change because sunlight warms the river faster as it gets shallower. So the algae have thrived. Their blooms suck up oxygen, suffocating the vegetation around them, and then decompose, layering the riverbed with gunk, killing oysters. The shellfish that survive are smaller, and the area where they can grow is shrinking.

“Caution: Swimming May Cause Illness!”

Cape Cod is dotted with freshwater kettle ponds that were formed by glaciers. One of Mashpee’s largest is Santuit Pond, roughly 170 acres of water surrounded by houses set on hills dotted with beech and scrub pine. In winter, the pond looks pristine, much the way it might have appeared to Henry David Thoreau when he walked the Cape in 1849. For much of the rest of the year, it is a foul smelling, neurotoxin laden, electric green mess.

“Warning! Closed — no swimming. Swimming may cause illness!” reads a metal placard by the boat launch. A nearby sign notes an algae bloom “can look like foam, scum, mats, or paint on the surface of the water. If you see a bloom, stay out of the water and keep your pets out of the water. Do not fish, swim, boat, or play in the water.”

Massachusetts has proposed a mandate that would require communities on Cape Cod to fix the problem within 20 years through a mix of upgrading the septic tanks used by homes that aren’t connected to city sewer systems and by building new networks of public sewer lines. Local officials say the plan would run into the billions of dollars and push housing costs beyond the means of many residents. “It is physically, financially and logistically impossible for us to meet that standard,” Robert Whritenour, town administrator of Yarmouth, one of the largest towns on the Cape, told state officials during a December public hearing in Hyannis. “It’s simply unfair.”

Massachusetts must now decide whether to move ahead with the mandate, and risk driving some people from their homes, or weaken the proposed rule, and allow the waters of Cape Cod to degrade even further. The decision could be a model for other coastal communities facing similar predicaments as the climate warms and overwhelms infrastructure built for an earlier age. “I can barely pay my mortgage,” Paul Haley, a  Cape Cod resident told state officials at the meeting in Hyannis. “If I have to put in a new septic system, I have to leave.”

The High Cost Of Doing Nothing

One wonders what Whritenour and Haley would recommend? Do nothing and drown in human waste products? What on earth do people think their property will be worth if prospective buyers learn they can’t swim in the kettle ponds that are a defining feature of Cape Cod or the aroma from the surrounding estuaries is so fetid on a hot day that is like living next door to an outhouse?

This is what happens when an economic system imposes no costs for the disposal of waste products. Humans have been living this way for centuries, always passing the costs of environmental degradation on to their heirs. Let it be someone else’s problem to solve. Meanwhile, we get to kick the can down the road a little longer.

The fate of humanity is told by the oyster beds on Cape Cod. If they are unable to survive, we will be unable to survive as well. People always complain that it is too expensive, which just means they approve of a system which imposes no costs for creating waste products. It’s hard to think of a more shortsighted attitude than that.

The Takeaway

The state of Florida is facing exactly the same problem. Septic waste from the city of Orlando and environs is sluicing into Lake Okeechobee and from there to the Gulf of Mexico, creating toxic algae blooms that prevent people from boating, swimming, and fishing. What other reasons are there for living in Florida? The problem is so common that people don’t even notice the dead fish and the odors wafting inland from the Gulf any more. They have grown used to it. It’s normal now.

But it’s not normal. It is a death knell for Florida. The end game of doing nothing is extinction, just as it is for allowing Cape Cod to drown in human detritus. The Wampanoags knew how to live in harmony with the land, but the Pilgrims and those who came after them thought the ways of the indigenous people were stupid. Clearly they were ignorant people who didn’t understand the first thing about economics. That condescension will soon make many Cape Cod communities uninhabitable. It’s amazing how many people are OK with that.


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