Thirty-two years of Science and Management in Buzzards Bay
2017 update: Celebrating 32 years as a program, 30 years as a NEP
by Dr. Joe Costa, Executive Director
Originally posted Fall 2005 with subsequent updates
In 2017, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program celebrated its 32nd year of efforts to protect and restore Buzzards Bay. Our program, which is part of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, began in 1985 after the United States Congress appropriated funds to create programs to study and manage four estuaries, including Buzzards Bay. These programs were to emulate the Chesapeake Bay Program, which Congress had created in 1983. We were established under the name the Buzzards Bay Project.
The original efforts to study and protect Buzzards Bay were lead by Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Gerry Studds who were cosponsoring or supporting various pieces of legislation to fund and update estuary protection efforts through US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) programs. A 1983 attempt to reauthorize the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (the Clean Water Act of 1983) included funding for studies of Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay, Puget Sound, and Long Island Sound (1). Although the legislation did not pass into law, the effort did lead the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide funding for the four programs in 1985. These four estuaries became pilots for the National Estuary Program. These new programs, which were administered EPA, were founded on the principal that good science could lead to good management, especially if scientists and managers also met with the public, industry, local officials, and other stakeholders in the community, to develop rational and publicly supported action plans.
Soon other legislators wanted an estuary study in their state. Partly at the encouragement of the EPA to put order to the process, when Congress finally passed Clean Water Act in 1987, it created the National Estuary Program in Section 320 of the law. The legislation gave priority consideration to Buzzards Bay and nine other estuaries for designation as National Estuaries. Section 320 created a formal process for nominating, administering, and overseeing these new National Estuary Programs. In 1987, the Buzzards Bay Project formerly applied to EPA for entry into a National Estuary Program. Today, Buzzards Bay is now one of 28 national estuaries of national significance.
The first few years of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program were dedicated to funding scientific studies. From this work came some new ideas, some of which surprised residents and local officials. For example, a big concern for residents was that more shellfish beds were being closed around Buzzards Bay because of bacterial pollution. However, when we began looking at pollution sources, we discovered that that shellfish bed closures in towns like Westport, Mattapoisett, Marion, and Falmouth were not caused by the New Bedford sewage outfall as many believed, but were caused by local sources of pollution like stormwater pipes, farm animal wastes, and cesspools or failing septic systems.
These studies also identified new problems that had never been considered for Buzzards Bay. For example, nitrogen from wastewater discharges, septic system contamination of groundwater, and runoff of fertilizers from lawns, golf course, and agricultural lands were over fertilizing coastal waters, and was becoming one of the most important threats to the bay. This “coastal eutrophication” was causing the excessive growth of algae and making eelgrass beds, a vital habitat and nursery for fish and shellfish, disappear. The overloading of nitrogen was also causing the accumulation of algae on some beaches, robbed oxygen from the water, and changed the bottom of bays in ways that could no longer be sustain desirable fish and shellfish. This new pollution was more insidious than other contamination. Bacterial pollution results in the closure of shellfish beds, but the shellfish remain. Coastal eutrophication causes shellfish to disappear altogether because their habitat is destroyed.
In the early 1990s, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program began translating a myriad of scientific and technical studies into a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. This CCMP was completed and approved by the state and EPA 1992.
This management plan was fundamentally different from most that came before it. While the plan acknowledged the importance of serious pollution problems like the New Bedford PCB Superfund site, the need to upgrade the New Bedford Sewage Treatment Plant, and eliminate the city’s combined sewer and stormwater overflow pipes, it placed a far greater emphasis on managing the cumulative impacts of growth all around the bay, and the need to manage the so-called “non-point” sources of pollution, the small pipes, land runoff, and groundwater seepage that conveys pollutants to the bay. Because the management plan focused so much on these cumulative effects, it was not surprising that three-fourths of the 100-plus recommendations were directed to municipal government. This was because it is the decisions of conservation commissions, boards of health, planning boards, and boards of selectmen and the mayor of New Bedford that have the greatest effect for good or bad, on the future health of Buzzards Bay watershed. The management plan also took a watershed approach, and stressed the importance in protecting freshwater wetlands and important upland habitat, both to protect those resources, and to help protect the bay itself.
After the management plan was created, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program moved in a new direction. Our new mission was to implement this plan. We did this through grants and technical assistance. Because most of the management recommendations were directed to local government, our main customers were the municipal officials of Buzzards Bay, and the citizen groups committed to that effort. Our Congressional delegation helped us to succeed because they fought to renew the National Estuary Program, and also helped target funding that brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funds to Buzzards Bay municipalities and non-profits.
We do not undertake this work alone. We have worked closely with two other organizations in particular, both of which originated within our Citizen Advisory Committee. In 1987 this committee broke apart into a group of citizens, who formed the non-profit group, The Coalition for Buzzards Bay [renamed the Buzzards Bay Coalition in 2011], and a group of municipal officials, that later became the non-profit Buzzards Bay Action Committee. The Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program initially provided considerable financial support in getting these two groups off the ground, but today both groups are self-sustaining and now help guide the direction of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program.
Creation of the Buzzards Bay Project and first public event
The first Buzzards Bay Project Management Committee meeting was held in February 1985 to develop a work plan for the then newly received federal funding, (read the meeting minutes), but it was not until the fall of 1985 that the Buzzards Bay Project had its first public kickoff. The first newsletter of the Buzzards Bay Project (870kb pdf, issued December 1985) describes the September 1985 gala event with Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Gerry Studds who were key legislators that helped create the Buzzards Bay Project. The newsletter was produced by the Lloyd Center for Environmental Studies which was hired as the public outreach contractor for the Buzzards Bay Project.
Since the Buzzards Bay CCMP was approved in 1992, more than half the recommendations have been fulfilled, and the management plan has influenced many of the state programs, and contributed to some important changes like the 1996 re-write of the septic system regulations (Title 5), which now include innovations like inspections and upgrades at property transfer, the state septic betterment program, the creation of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center, the focus of state grant programs on non-point source pollution and stormwater management, and the improvement in local implementation and enforcement of wetland regulations.
However, as far reaching as the CCMP was for its time, new environmental challenges have arisen, new regulations are in place, and new problems need to be addressed. After 21 years, a new plan is needed that will be as cutting edge, and hard pressing as the first. The old plan helped guide state and federal dollars, technical assistance, and regulations for more than two decades. A new plan will again give local officials and citizens of Buzzards Bay a voice to create new strategies and direction to protect water quality and habitat in Buzzards Bay and its surrounding watershed, and again help direct state and federal resources to these problems.
For these reasons, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program embarked on a rewrite of the Buzzards Bay management plan. In this effort, we sought input from residents, citizen groups, municipal officials, fisherman, and businessman of Buzzards Bay once again. This updated plan will be finalized in 2013.
(1) In our December 1985 newsletter we wrote: “Congress also recognizes the unique value of Buzzards Bay and selected the bay as one of four estuaries in the country to be studied under a special $4 million appropriation in 1985.” The original attempt to authorize funding of Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay, Puget Sound, and Long Island Sound was within the “Clean Water Act Amendments of 1983 (98th Congress: S431) introduced February 1983 where the study of Buzzards Bay was identified in a specific amendment (S4099). A subsequent attempt to include priority estuary study funding to Buzzards Bay appears in Clean Water Act renewal legislation introduced June 1984 (98th Congress: HR 3282). Both these pieces of legislation failed to pass, but apparently an appropriation bill for EPA funding passed in the federal 1985 fiscal year (October 1984 – September 1985) that included funding for the four priority estuary programs. We have never been able to obtain a copy of this appropriation legislation.
Despite the failure of these early efforts, Congress continued to work to reauthorize the Clean Water Act. The first use of the term estuaries of “national significance” appears in an attempted Clean Water Act reauthorization bill introduced January 1985, 99th Congress: HR 9. This legislation would create an EPA program, and enable “the Governor of any State to nominate to the Administrator an estuary within their jurisdiction which they believe is of national significance and request a management conference to develop a comprehensive management plan.” Companion legislation introduced in the Senate in July 1985 specifically mentions Buzzards Bay as a priority site for the designation as an Estuary of National Significance (99th Congress: SN1128). This legislation actually passed Congress but was pocket vetoed in 1986). Competing legislation was introduced in July 1985 to place the national estuary program under NOAA as part of state CZM programs in a CZM Act reauthorization bill (99th Congress: HR2497). This bill “Requires the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to review all nominations and designate those estuaries of national significance for which special area management plans should be developed.”). Neither of the bills were signed by the President. A subsequent successful attempt to designate “estuaries of national significance” is illustrated in this Omnibus appropriations bill introduced in July 1985 (99th Congress: HR3128) and became law in April 1986. This bill “[amended] the National Ocean Pollution Planning Act of 1978 to add as a purpose of such Act to provide for the effective coordination of research concerning the environmental quality of the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and other estuaries of national significance.”
The CZMA and Clean Water Act reauthorization bills during the period 1983 to 1986 failed to make headway or were vetoed by then President Reagan. Still, Congress kept authorizing funding for estuary programs through appropriation bills and EPA regions developed bays programs teams to implement Congress’ intent. EPA worked with Congress to improve the language of various bills to formalize this national estuary designation process. It was not until 1987 that the National Estuary Program was finally created with the Clean Water Act reauthorization bill (100th Congress: HR 1). The bill was again vetoed by the President, but this time Congress overrode the veto. In this final passing version, Congress automatically gave 10 estuaries, including Buzzards Bay, priority for inclusion into the program. NOAA did not completely lose out; Congress provided NOAA with a comparable, but more research-oriented program, called the National Estuarine Research Reserve program in 1986.