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0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a390002"A national treasure in our backyard"It spans more than 13,000 acres. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population lives within its watershed. In a 2010 series, Amy Quinton looked at the trouble pollution poses to the health of this critical estuary, and some proposed solutions for returning the Seacoast’s Great Bay to health.Now, NHPR's Environment Reporter Sam Evans-Brown brings you continuing coverage of the efforts being made in the Great Bay.Coverage supported by Penn State Public Media.Great Bay Watershed Map | More Great Bay Images

Seacoast Communities Move Toward Upgraded Wastewater Treatment

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Earlier this week, the city of Portsmouth approved 75 million dollars in bonds to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant on Peirce Island. The vote by the city council is a milestone in the years-long effort by federal and state regulators to clean up Great Bay.

It’s been about five years since the federal Environmental Protection Agency starting issuing tougher standards for wastewater treatment plants in the Great Bay watershed. The goal was to lower the amount of nitrogen entering the bay, which scientists say is killing eelgrass, a vital habitat and food source for wildlife.

Communities around Great Bay faced a choice: spend millions to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities, or face stiff penalties from the EPA.

In just the last month, two more Seacoast communities chose the first option. But coming to that decision hasn’t always been easy, as evidenced by recent contentious city council meetings in Portsmouth.

The council was deciding whether to approve an upgrade to their existing wastewater treatment plant on Peirce Island.

Many opponents to the plan wanted a new treatment plant built at the former Pease Airforce Base, instead.

But city councilor Bradley Lown said building at Pease would take time that the city simply doesn’t have.

“We’re risking sanctions from the EPA," said Lown. "We’re putting in jeopardy the amendment to the consent decree. We’re throwing off the schedule to solicit bids for contractors and get the job going. We have kicked the can down the road for 30 years. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

The council ultimately voted seven-to-one to approve the project, which will be the most expensive in the city’s history.

It’s the latest and largest community in the watershed to make a significant move toward meeting the EPA’s wastewater standards. Newmarket voted in 2013 to upgrade their wastewater treatment plant at a cost of about 14 million dollars. And last week, Exeter approved a 55 million dollar proposal to do the same.

While these projects weren’t as controversial as Portsmouth’s, they were still tough pills to swallow. 

“The sewer rate increases that we’re facing as a result of this project are pretty significant," says Russell Dean, town administrator of Exeter. "We’re looking at 650 dollars a year for our sewer rate payers and so we certainly feel that pain. But the options are very limited. You either meet the requirements or you don’t and if you don’t, they have the ability to come in and fine the town.”

For Stephen Perkins with the EPA, the recent moves by Exeter and Portsmouth are welcome news.

“What I think you saw last week was the culmination of a lot of work on the communities’ parts to step up to the plate,” said Perkins.

Perkins says with these communities on board, the chapter on upgrading the large wastewater treatment plants around Great Bay is coming to a close.

Next up, he says, is addressing storm-water runoff, which accounts for about two-thirds of the nitrogen entering the bay.

How Great Bay communities react to that challenge? We’ll have to wait and see.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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