Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb joined Cape Media News Host Sarah Colvin in studio earlier this month. Gottlieb recently left his post as Executive Director of the Collaborative. He discusses with Sarah the important work of the Collaborative, his decision to move on, and what’s next as Cape Cod continues to deal with important economic and environmental issues surrounding water quality.
Read a transcript of the interview:
Sarah Colvin: I’m Sarah Colvin for Cape Media News / Inside Cape Cod. My guest today is Andrew Gottlieb. who has led the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative for many years, he is deciding to step down. We are going to talk about the Collaborative, what’s next for you. Andrew, thank you so much for joining me today.
Andrew Gottleib: It’s nice to be here.
SC: So back in 2005, you started working to lead the Water Protection Collaborative, that was when it began. Tell me a little bit about the Collaborative and what you do on Cape Cod.
AG: Well, the Water Protection Collaborative was created by County ordinance and it’s a body that represents the interests of the 15 (Cape) towns, as representatives appointed by each one of the 15 boards of selectmen, two members appointed by the County Commissioners to represent broader regional interests. And the Collaborative is formed largely to look at all water quality issues on the Cape, I think it’s a representation or a reflection of the fact that the County at the time saw water quality as the primary and essential building block for the Cape economy, and that it warranted some higher level attention, and the Towns, each individually, could apply to it. And so, we focus on water resources issues of all sorts, but the primary focus of our work has been on the nitrogen issue as it pertains to impacting the water quality in our embayments and bays. And so, we’ve worked for well over a decade now on trying to find ways to help communities deal effectively with that issue and do it in a way that’s affordable and appropriate for residents of Cape Cod.
SC: What is the biggest concern when it comes to nitrogen? I think we hear so often about the problem, that there are things we need to do, steps we need to take, but what are the biggest impacts of the nitrogen loading, and where is it coming from?
AG: Well, basically, nitrogen is a fertilizer, and what you have happening is that the way we’ve disposed of human waste on Cape Cod for decades, centuries even, is to basically put it in the ground, first in cesspools and now in septic systems, that were designed to protect public health, well protect the public from exposure to pathogens and bacteria. And they do a very good job of getting our wastewater below ground and treating those bacterias so people don’t get sick. And that’s been great. They were not designed, and they don’t do a very good job of taking nitrogen, which is a byproduct of the breakdown of human waste, out of the system. So basically, what we are doing in every single back yard on Cape Cod is injecting nitrogen, a fertilizer, into the groundwater, normal process is the groundwater flows to a nearby surface water, sometimes it goes through a pond or a river or a wetland or directly into one of our embayments. And once it hits that marine environment, that nitrogen serves as a fertilizer. And just like you do your lawn, or something else, or garden, a certain amount of fertilizer is fine. It helps plants grow and the system can absorb a certain amount. When it becomes out of balance of what the environment can handle, what we’ve had happen is the growth of excessive amounts of algae, which do a couple of bad things in the embayments. One is, it clouds the water, which prevents sunlight from penetrating to the bottom and has resulted, one of the factors resulting in the die-off of eelgrass, which is an important part of the natural habitat in our bays. It’s where the scallops live, for fin fish serves as a nursery, it’s a fundamental building block. So, it has limited the amount of eelgrass and lessened the clarity of the water, so less sun gets to the bottom. The second compounding aspect is that all that algae grows in the summer, dies in the winter, and when it dies it settles on the bottom. And it’s smothered the bottom. So rather than have sandy bottoms, which is the natural state for our embayments, we’ve got muck. And in that muck, you lose all the habitat for shellfish and the benthic community and so what you basically have is bays that have been severely impacted by the nitrogen and aren’t providing the natural resource functions or the recreational human uses that people have come to Cape Cod to enjoy.
SC: So many areas of Cape Cod impacted by our water quality, not just the wildlife that lives in the area but also the beauty of the water, the ability of people to enjoy it. We’ve heard countless times that the environment is our economy here on Cape Cod, and if we don’t have those beautiful waterways, it’s less likely that people are going to want to come here. And then, of course, the single-source aquifer that we have, protecting our drinking water (is important to pay attention to) as well.
AG: Well, right. The nitrogen issue is an environmental issue, but it’s not just an environmental issue, it’s as much an economic preservation issue. If we don’t have clean water so people want to recognize as an attractive place to be, then the businesses that are predicated on our tourist economy are going to suffer, the property values, people looking to re-sell their homes are going to suffer, the value of people’s homes as an ability to pass on wealth to their families, that’s all going to suffer. So, it’s environmental but it’s also significantly economic. In terms of a groundwater resource, the drinking water, we are fortunate in that the environment is far more sensitive to nitrogen than humans are. So, nitrogen doesn’t represent a significant broad scale threat to public drinking water. We do have concerns and require vigilance to protect our groundwater, because every sip of water that comes from a tap, private well or public source on Cape Cod comes from the ground, and that is also the place where we dispose of our waste, so you want to be appropriately protective of those resources as well.
SC: So Andrew, talk to me a little bit about what the Water Protection Collaborative has done over the years to stem the tide of this and to help continue to protect our bays and estuaries.
AG: I think the Collaboratives’ primary value has been in a couple of areas. One, it has been very effective in helping change the system by which the state, and the feds to a certain degree, but primarily the state, provide financial assistance to communities. At the end of the day, the cost of dealing with this problem is going to be borne by each municipality and so one of our strategies has been to get the State to understand the special nature of the problem we’re confronting on Cape Cod. We have about four percent of the population and 20 percent of the septic systems in Massachusetts. So, the problem is disproportionate to our region. And so we have worked aggressively to change the state rules both legislation and regulation to make additional state monies available to Cape communities that reflects the special nature of the problem we’re dealing with. We have been able to provide and support legislation that’s passed that’s now law to provide no-interest loans to communities, so that when they borrow money to do the mitigation projects, they are not paying any interest, they are just paying back the principal of the loan. More recently, we’ve been able to get legislation through that provides the opportunity to actually have the state forgive some of the principal, so not only is there no interest, but there can be up to 25 percent of the principal, so if you borrow $100, you’re not paying any interest on it, and you might have to only pay $75 back. That’s effectively a grant. As a result of the work the Collaborative has done, the statutory inclusion the Cape communities as eligible for those types of considerations.
The other area in addition to the financial assistance piece that we’ve been instrumental in working on has been the reform of the State regulatory and Federal regulatory processes to recognize not only the unique nature of the problem we’re dealing with, but the unique suite of solutions that are appropriate on Cape Cod. A lot of the things that we’re doing to lower cost to the individual communities is to influence and make more readily implementable alternatives to sewering. Sewering tending to be the more expensive solution. So by that I mean things like investing in aquaculture, investing in reactive barriers that absorb some of the nitrogen in the system, in the ground, before it reaches the estuaries. And we’ve been able to write legislation and work on regulatory reform that makes these alternatives things that the communities can get credit for and the Federal regulatory system so that there’s the ability to get permit credit for things that five years ago were not considered viable wastewater management alternatives. And that has brought the cost way down of what the ultimate solution is. So, I fell like the Collaborative has been able to work on both ends of the equation. We’ve changed the regulatory environment so that the low-cost, easy solutions that are appropriate for Cape Cod are now permittable from the State and Federal governments. That’s brought the cost down and at the same time we’ve been able to bring additional money into the region to help mitigate the impact of those lower costs on the individual taxpayers.
SC: And we certainly have seen pushback from residents and even some towns when we think about sewering. I think about the Stewarts Creek project in Barnstable, specifically I think residents are concerned about that financial burden that they have to bear, especially since so many homeowners years ago had to replace older septic systems with Title V and now we’re saying that’s not good enough. Residents are concerned about the possibility of new solutions not being good enough, but we must continue to look at the alternatives.
AG: I think ultimately, towns, the wastewater world moves slowly, and towns have been working on this issue in some cases for a couple of decades. Largely, without an enormous amount of public interest. The public gets interested when you provide the price tag, and then when you take that price tag and break it down to what does it mean to me, then people get very interested. And so, one of the things that we’ve been able to do through the Collaborative is get together on a monthly basis and have the towns share their experiences with their neighboring communities so that we’ve been able to refine the process a little bit so that it doesn’t come as so much of a surprise when Town A all of a sudden brings their proposal into public view and discusses with their voters because they’ve heard what the adjoining town or the town four towns down Route 6 might have done and experienced. Each town has been able to incorporate the experiences of others into the way they communicate with their public about what they are doing. So, I think we are getting to the point, soon, and a lot of this is attributable to work we’ve done with the Cape Cod Commission on the 208 Water Quality Planning Process, we’ve been able to talk a little bit more effectively, and earlier in the process as people about cost and have been able to bring alternatives to the table so that the community, the broader community, can become a little bit more involved in selecting the combination of alternatives that makes sense for their community as opposed to feeling like the town just dropped a sewer-only program on their head, and it’s either do this or there’s no other alternative. So, I think there’s been some progress. But times are tough and people are struggling economically and it’s not an easy thing to get the critical mass in a community to be able to vote to move any of these projects forward.
SC: So the Water Protection Collaborative falls under the auspices of the County, and I think that our news-watching public has seen obviously a lot of changes in the County, we have a new County Administrator and an election, as we’re taping this, getting ready to welcome a new County Commissioner onto the board. Of course, you have also decided that it’s time for you to move on. So are these changes in the County, was that something that prompted you to say it might be time for me to make a change?
AG: Well, what i was reacting to is that one sitting commissioner and newly elected commissioner had both made statements, public statements, easy to see and find, that they felt that my position that I hold on a contract basis was more appropriately transferred to another agency within County government. It’s my view that the majority of an elected body has the right to staff and implement its program the way that it sees fit, if they didn’t think that the position I was occupying brought value, then that’s their prerogative, and I thought I would clear the field and give them the opportunity to do it however they saw fit, so I tended my resignation effective January 3.
SC: Do you think they are right about that?
AG: No, I don’t. I think that the Collaborative has brought value to the residents of Cape Cod, has elevated the discussion by including the communities in the County process in a way that has not been the norm in other areas of interest and concern, but my perspective is my perspective and people voted who they voted in and they have a different perspective and I respect that.
SC: I did read in the Cape Cod Times article discussing your decision to resign, that there were concerns over the way in which the contract was being formulated. They criticized your independent leadership style.
AG: I’m not going to get into a tit-for-tat on it. I think that our contracting, we have broad resources to the region from the State and in particular the issue at hand there was around monitoring, and somehow the notion that we were able to pursue and acquire a four year commitment of capital funds from the Baker administration upon their arrival in office to support a million dollars worth of centralized County-based water quality monitoring so that we would be able to have a good record, a consistent record that helped us understand the effectiveness of the work we were doing on the land side, on our marine environment, that somehow that constituted a negative, always confused me a little bit. So, you know, when we use the contract process that we have used for years, you may be referring to, somewhat terse/tense interaction with the Commissioners about that contracting process, you know, we’ve done our contracting in accordance with State law, we’ve provided value to the communities that have benefited from it, we monitor our contracts closely and without any hint of impropriety or misappropriation of funds, and so I did take exception to that, that the allusion that something other than that was what had happened.
SC: So, what is next for you?
AG: Well, I have a number of different things. I am currently chair of the Mashpee Board of Selectmen, we are working on implementing our own water quality program with some good initial success but a lot of work left to do, I’ll spend some time doing that, I have a consulting practice around water quality issues statewide that I’ll reinvigorate a little bit, and I can plan on continuing to stay involved in advocating for my town and the towns around us to deal with this critical issue.
SC: It certainly is a critical issue and I think we are at the point where it is certainly time to pay more attention to implementing those solutions. How important is it for all of the Cape towns to have that regional approach, instead of doing it town by town?
AG: Well, I think one of the key elements of the county wide plan that’s been developed over the last couple of years in concert with the Cape Cod Commission is a recognition that these embayments are shared resources among the various towns. The impact of nitrogen loading from a town that may not even have frontage on a particular embayment impacts that embayment. And that because the natural resources don’t respect the Town boundaries, there’s a disconnect between managing them exclusively on a town by town basis. One of the elements of the regional plan that provided huge cost savings and opportunities for alternatives has been the notion of moving away from town by town management towards watershed management. So, in my town, Mashpee, around Popponesset Bay is an excellent example. Nitrogen from Sandwich, Barnstable, and Mashpee all contribute to the water quality in Popponesset Bay. And while we in Mashpee have our own program, it’s been developed recognizing what the contributions from those two other communities are, in fact, we’re working on an intermissable agreement right now to acknowledge our shared role and responsibility in managing that embayment and one of the things that’s part of that agreement is a discussion among the three towns of where is it most cost effective for certain management measures to take place, and it may be that each one of us acting independently, actually, it’s not that it may be, it is clearly more expensive for each town to manage without acknowledging the role of the other towns. And so, we’re about to come to the recognition, and this is really where the regional value comes in, of the collaborative and the work the Commission is doing, is that we can lower costs by facilitating towns working together on a shared resource. And so, I think it does, were the County to step away from that role of encouraging and supporting collaboration between communities, the net effect of that will be: slow down cleanup and have it be more expensive, and it probably ultimately less effective. And so, you know, there are people who take issue with County government, in the area of resource management, water resources management, I don’t think any rational person can argue that doing things with some County perspective doesn’t make sense.
SC: And as we mentioned earlier, the nitrogen issue is coming from us, right? We as human beings are causing this, we are the problem. So is there anything that individuals, residents, homeowners, can do in their homes or in their practice of daily life to ease the issue?
AG: Well, the primary thing that the individual can do, that they have under their control, is to actually limit the use of fertilizers on their lawns and gardens. A number of Towns have developed fertilizer control bylaws, the tendency is to over fertilize. Everyone wants their grass really green, and you can achieve green grass and healthy gardens with less fertilizer. Not only less, but use it somewhat more intelligently, in other words, don’t do your application of fertilizer within 24 hours of particularly heavy rainfall. A lot of that nitrogen will just slush right off and washes into the water body. That’s the type of thing that people can do. In terms of limiting their nitrogen loading, individually, I think that rather than change personal practices, I would encourage people to engage with what their town is doing and become part of the discussion. I think it is very difficult for an individual to take an action that is ultimately going to move the needle. It really needs to be a collective action. Sure, people can put in nitrogen-reducing septic systems. At very high price to themselves, and not in a significant impact enough to by itself to change what’s happening to water quality. People can put in composting toilets if that’s something that they think fits their lifestyle, and they can have much less of an impact on the resource. But this is one of those things that requires collective action. It requires collective action at the Town level, which would be good, what would be better is encouraging your town both to take its issues seriously and work with those adjoining communities with whom it shares a responsibility to clean up a given resource.
SC: And if you were to look in the next two or three years, what solutions would you like to see implemented as soon as possible, if any?
AG: I think there’s a suite of solutions. I think anyone who comes to the table and says “The silver bullet is this…” and all we have to do is this one approach, is probably more advocating for a particular approach than looking comprehensively at the solution. I think getting your town to look at what it can do through alternative approaches, shellfishing, reactive barriers, inlet openings, where they are appropriate in limited cases, and fertilizer control, are all low-hanging fruit, cheaper than most of the other alternatives out there, and really dig into those. And then look for what’s left at the lowest footprint, wastewater collection treatment program that you can do in order to meet the water quality objectives.
SC: Well Andrew, thank you so much for joining me today, it’s been a pleasure talking with you and we will miss your leadership at the County.
AG: Nice to talk to you too thank you.
SC: Andrew Gottlieb, of course is outgoing Executive Director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, I’m Sarah Colvin.