Seacoast Cities Settle With Nonprofit To Move Forward On Great Bay Restoration
New runoff controls are coming to Great Bay after three adjacent cities reached an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation to avert an appeal of a key federal water quality permit.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the long-awaited permit for a dozen towns around Great Bay last year.
It takes an unusual collective approach to limit nitrogen runoff into the protected estuary from sources like wastewater plants, septic systems and paved surfaces.
Excess nitrogen in the water can lead to algae blooms and harm the eelgrass beds that hold the bay’s sediment in place, degrading the whole ecosystem and making it less resilient to storms and other pollution.
The nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation has worked on this issue for years. It cautioned the new permit wasn't strict enough to hold towns accountable, especially for controlling non-point nitrogen sources that contribute the majority of runoff in the bay.
But the EPA and the towns said an appeal would scuttle the whole process, which has already dragged on for years.
Now, CLF has reached an agreement to avoid that prospect with three cities: Rochester, Dover and Portsmouth, which together account for about half of the bay’s nitrogen load.
The cities have agreed to make what CLF calls “reasonable progress” in the next few years on a range of innovative practices to limit nitrogen runoff – including drainage improvements, new catch basins, fertilizer changes, public outreach and oyster bed restorations. Some are already planned, and some would be pilot programs.
In exchange, the CLF says it won't appeal the permit. The group’s Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper Melissa Paly called the agreement an “inflection point” to begin restoring a federally protected water body, often called "the jewel of the Seacoast."
“This has been a long and contentious road to reduce nitrogen pollution in the estuary,” Paly said. “After many, many years, it’s really gratifying to see municipalities coming together, working more collaboratively with CLF and other stakeholders to start down a new path, and hopefully the estuary will be the better for it.”
In the coming months, more of the towns covered by the permit expect to reach broader agreements on how they’ll collaboratively meet the EPA’s mandate. The EPA says it expects all covered towns will opt in to participating in the permit’s collective structure.
If the new water quality goals aren’t met within five years, the EPA says it plans to issue a stricter, more traditional permit in place of the current one.