Blog : Great Bay Stewards Hone Efforts to Reverse Decades-Long Decline of Unique Estuary

By Herb | Jan 13, 2014 | in

By BILL BURTIS
Green Alliance

GREAT BAY ESTUARY — How do you know Great Bay? Perhaps you’ve been in it in a swimsuit or a wet suit, a kayak or a boat. Maybe you’ve hiked its shoreline, fished it from a bridge or rocky outcrop. Or you’ve just enjoyed its sunlit glimmer or sea smoke, catching site of an eagle enjoying lunch on an ice floe.

Whatever your connection, you know that the Bay and its collection of seven rivers shape the topography and the culture, whether human or natural, of this beautiful place, and are a key part of what makes living on “the Seacoast” unique.

Sadly, the Great Bay Estuary, as an ecosystem, has been in steady decline for decades because of increasing pollution from development in the towns in its watershed. The biggest single current threat to the health of the Bay is nitrogen, which promotes algal growth; algae, in turn, threaten one species vital to the overall health of the Bay — eelgrass.

“The eelgrass is our canary in the coal mine. Algae are winning the war right now due to the excess of nitrogen in the estuary,” says Peter Wellenberger, executive director of the Great Bay Stewards, a volunteer-based organization working to prevent shoreline erosion, invasive plant growth, or increased nitrogen levels from human-caused water runoff, and is committed to protecting Great Bay for plants, animals, and people alike. “We are continuing to see a decline in both eelgrass cover and especially in the density of the beds,” Wellenberger says.

A Green Alliance member, the Stewards have recently announced a new campaign — and one with teeth — to help reduce one of the biggest sources of nitrogen deposition in the Bay. “We’ve set up a partnership to reduce pollution, particularly nitrogen, from residential sources,” Wellenberger says. Called Soak Up the Rain Great Bay, it partners GBS with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ Soak Up The Rain New Hampshire campaign. As the name implies, the goal of Soak Up the Rain is to reduce the amount of pollution carried into waterways by surface runoff.

 “We are membership-driven organization,” Wellenberger points out, “so this effort with homeowners is a natural fit for us. Our job will be to educate property owners in the watershed about what to do to reduce the amount of nitrogen, particularly from lawns, that gets into the Bay.”

The Stewards are well-suited to the task of reaching across borders to private landowners and small businesses in the 1,023 square-mile Great Bay watershed that comprises 42 New Hampshire and 10 Maine communities. The impetus for the Stewards’ Soak Up effort is new rules taking effect in 2014 under which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will regulate stormwater and surface runoff — commonly referred to as “non-point sources” of pollution, Wellenberger explains.

He notes the Stewards have a particular interest in what’s happening with stormwater, because it washes pollutants into waterways “and is increasing with extreme precipitation. The new EPA permits will require reducing nitrogen from all non-point sources, including residential and smaller commercial properties.

“Communities that have never dealt with this kind of regulation before will now be required to reduce pollution from storm water,” Wellenberger says. “Sewage treatment plants and other major sources have known regulation for some time, but this new requirement gets down to the level of lawns, large roofs, parking lots — any source of polluted runoff.”

While this level of regulation will seem onerous to some, it’s an important step in saving the Great Bay ecosystem, Wellenberger believes. “If the Soak Up the Rain program is successful, it should have a positive impact on the health of the eelgrass,” he says.

There are two main parts to the GBS approach: the first is education, whether on-site, one-on-one, or to groups. “We will visit homeowners, companies, or community groups to do programs to educate the public. Part of that is letting people know that a lot of homeowners are doing things right.” For those folks, GBS offers the “Tide Turner” — a voluntary agreement signed by the property owner detailing certain responsibilities they agree to undertake to preserve the Bay.

“For instance, they agree they won’t wash the car in the driveway, they won’t use detergents containing phosphates, they will restrict the use of garbage disposals that empty into septic systems,” he explains, “and we give them a plaque for their property. This is a way of using positive re-enforcement that is critical because the focus has been on big contributors.”

The second part of the Soak Up effort is on-the-ground action: Trained GBS volunteers will visit a piece of property and do an assessment and undertake measures to reduce pollution. “We’ve been trained to go in — particularly to properties that border water ways,” Wellenberger says, “and work with owners to help them understand the impact of fertilizing, disposing of wastes, use of chemicals, anything that might end up in the waterway and to devise ways of reducing those impacts.”

He cites a pilot assessment where the trained staff from GBS went onto a property and were able to determine that runoff was crossing the homeowner’s lawn from an entire neighborhood because of the way the road was designed.

“It wasn’t his fault at all. We designed a rain garden and installed it to catch the runoff,” Wellenberger says, adding that the assessment and rain garden installation were at no cost to the homeowner. “Stopping that runoff helped prevent lawn fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides — in the aggregate, these are very big contributors, on a par with agriculture — from reaching a waterway that drained into the Bay.

GBS will also help homeowners determine whether they need nitrogen and other chemicals at all. “If a soil test indicates the lawn could get by with little or no help, that helps reduce pollution,” Wellenberger explains. “So the homeowners understand that it’s not just the big players like the treatment plants and corporations; we all play a role because as agriculture has waned, houses with lawns have exploded.”

The bottom line is that GBS wants to help homeowners and small businesses understand BMPs — “best management practices,” Wellenberger says. GBS volunteers will also work with small commercial enterprises, whose roofs and parking lots face regulation for stormwater runoff. “That’s where our membership in GA becomes especially important, because we can reach out to the small businesses who are members to help them with this process.”

The Green Alliance is a union of local sustainable businesses promoting environmentally sound business practices and a green co-op offering discounted green products and services to its consumer members.

Wellenberger notes the Stewards also hope to work with neighborhood associations, condominium homeowners associations and the like. “We have bigger impacts where a whole bunch of houses are involved and we can work with a neighborhood and come up with a plan — here are some options! We might, for instance, plant a buffer — and pay for that.”

To learn more about the Great Bay Stewards, visit www.greatbaystewards.org/.

For more information about the Green Alliance, visit www.greenalliance.biz.