Federal regulators are proposing a new way to limit water pollution from a dozen towns surrounding Great Bay.
The draft general permit from the Environmental Protection Agency marks a big step forward in the years-long effort to clean up the degraded estuary.
Instead of regulating each of those issues in each town separately, the permit takes what officials say is a novel approach for the EPA. It sets a target for limiting nitrogen pollution, and lets the towns decide how to invest in meeting it.
Ted Diers, administrator of the state's Watershed Bureau, says his agency and the towns pushed for this more flexible strategy, after it was clear that EPA-mandated wastewater upgrades weren’t enough to restore the estuary.
Diers says he hopes this kind of permit could be a model for other watersheds around the country. He says it has monitoring and local accountability measures built in – but it'll take years to know if the approach is effective.
"The permit … does acknowledge that this is a really long-term problem, and it's a long-term fix,” Diers says.
Melissa Paly, the Great Bay Waterkeeper with the Conservation Law Foundation, says these towns have spent tens of millions of dollars on this issue at their wastewater plants in recent years.
Now, she hopes they'll prioritize stormwater and septic runoff -- which could become a greater threat as climate change causes heavier, more frequent rainstorms.
“I'm hoping that this permit will push us into the next generation of cleaning up this estuary and restoring its health,” Paly says.
The permit is out for public comment until March 9, with a public hearing set for Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Department of Environmental Services office in Portsmouth.
This story has been updated with details about the permit's public hearing.