Too Much Nitrogen Is Choking Out the Joy of Summer Swimming

When I was a young girl, I spent every summer in Cape Cod. Those were golden times swimming at Nauset Beach, digging for clams, licking ice cream cones, and enjoying summer fun. I learned to swim in East Orleans, not in the ocean, but in one of the pristine ponds that dot the Cape.

Or that used to be pristine anyway. According to the New York Times, the Cape’s freshwater ponds, salt ponds, and estuaries are increasingly choked with nitrogen.

A combination of old septic systems and the Cape’s sandy geology has caused nitrogen levels to skyrocket. As with other nutrients, nitrogen in small doses is a good thing, but too much can be disastrous. The excess nitrogen is now fueling algal blooms and snuffing out the oxygen that marine species need to survive.

But it isn’t only the Cape that is suffering from these results. The influx of nitrogen from septic tanks, agriculture, and a host of other human activities is clogging waterways across America. Last year, the EPA’s National Lake Assessment found that 46 percent of American lakes are in “fair” or “poor” condition as a result of nitrogen.

Bill Schlesinger, NRDC Board member and eminent scientist, identifies the nitrogen crisis as one as great as climate change to the future of our water systems.

Whether it is the increasingly clogged ponds of the East Coast or the expanding dead zones in coastal areas around the world, we are adding more nitrogen into our waterways and throwing them way out of ecological balance.

It’s time America started to restore the balance. But one of the challenges is that our nation’s most effective weapon against water pollution—the Clean Water Act—does not address some of the biggest sources of nitrogen. The law was designed to reduce pollution coming from concentrated sources like factories, mills, and sewage treatment plants. It doesn’t address diffuse sources like runoff from farmers’ fields and parking lots.

This means that nitrogen goes largely unregulated and is allowed to flow freely into our waterways.

I remember being on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay ago listening to Will Baker, the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, describe how nitrogen is choking the Bay and endangering the blue crabs that make it famous. Yet every waterway we went up was lined with farmers’ fields and green lawns stretching to the water’s edge, each one helped along by nitrogen-heavy fertilizer and regular watering that wash nitrogen off the lawns and into the Bay.

Hopefully an article like the one in the Times, which hits close to home for me, will begin to alert homeowners, farmers, towns, and even the government to the ticking time bomb of nitrogen—a bomb that could explode the long-term health of our communities.  

And hopefully we will start turning to the smart policies and better design options that can help defuse this imminent threat.

Homeowners who rely on septic systems, for instance, should make sure their tanks are well sited and properly maintained and that their leach fields are large enough and far enough away from groundwater sources.

Developers and municipalities can embrace green infrastructure—things like pocket parks, grassy swales, and permeable pavement—that has been proven to keep water on site and reduce dirty runoff.  The National Association of Home Builders says green infrastructure is good for builders and owners alike: Not only does it increase property values, but it also costs two to three times less to install than conventional curbs, gutters, and storm drains.

State and federal agencies need to do their part as well in controlling traditional sources of nutrients like discharges from sewage treatment plants and urban runoff, which in many places remain a big part of the problem. For decades the EPA has avoided adopting meaningful water quality standards for nutrients even where it has the authority—and is required to adopt such standards—under the Clean Water Act. This has to change. The EPA and states should issue nitrogen standards and link permits for sewage treatment plants and stormwater discharges to meaningful limits for nitrogen.

Meanwhile, towns along the Cape may have to pay for improved infrastructure. These upgrades may seem expensive, but they could prove far less costly to the Cape’s economy than allowing all those beautiful ponds to die.