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PRESENTATION TO THE
WELLFLEET NONRESIDENT TAXPAYERS ASSOCIATION
AUGUST 11, 2008

My name is Herbert Gstalder. I am a Wellfleet non-resident taxpayer, not an expert. I am addressing you as the president of the Gull Pond Area Conservation Association, a homeowners association that was founded by the Altmans, Winkelsteins and Wolfs, among others in 1962. Remarkably, some of the original founders are here tonight. Regrettably they are not all here. GUPACA’s focus has been on the water quality in Gull Pond and its watershed and related plant growth in the pond. We have not involved ourselves in political matters unless they relate to pond water quality. Our greatest success as GUPACA has been in raising the awareness of the issue of water quality in Gull pond. We are all in a remarkable situation here to be effective as a group. You who live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts all year may not recognize the advantage you have being in a state with a tradition of town meetings, which creates a receptive atmosphere for individual and group input. In addition, we have the resources of the National Seashore. If you want to make the day for any of the National Seashore staff, come to them with a question in their field of expertise. At our annual meetings we have had scientists, rangers and administrators from the National Seashore, Town Selectmen and representatives from the Cape Cod Commission give their time on a Sunday or Monday afternoon in August to address our members. I believe it has been very important that we have stayed purely focused on water quality. We have other shared problems as neighbors such as the maintenance of the roads, but we have not brought these issues into GUPACA. Staying focused has given us a clear identity in the wider community and some standing.

We would urge all of you who live on or in the watershed of a pond to form an association. We have put some work into this over the years, but the return has been greater than the effort.

I will give an overview tonight on what we have learned and, of equal importance, what we do not know about Gull Pond; actions we believe should and should not be done for the health of the pond. This presentation is available on the GUPACA website: www.GUPACA.org, as is data on Gull Pond prepared by the National Seashore. I have stolen shamelessly from many reports, most prepared by the National Seashore, whose staff have been helpful to us throughout the years. Any errors are mine, not theirs. John Portnoy has been particularly helpful to us. You can watch him cringe if I make any errors.

There is a theme underlying my presentation that was best stated by Walt Kelly, the American satirist and creator of the now-defunct cartoon strip Pogo. In 1813 Commodore Perry issued his famous dispatch after a victory in the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Kelly paraphrased this 150 years later to read: “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Gull Pond is suffering and we are the enemy.

First, some background on ponds in general and Gull Pond specifically. There are six criteria used to classify the ponds into three categories of health or trophic level . Most are objective measurements. Two seem to contain some subjectivity. They are:

The National Seashore monitors and records dissolved oxygen, transparency, nitrogen and phosphorus and has studied and measured the aquatic vegetation in the ponds. I am unclear whether they measure phytoplankton other than as a measure of transparency.
 The trophic classifications are:

Oligotrophic: pristine, low nutrient, clear
                                TP 4.0
                                Sechi Transparency 10m

Mesotrophic
                                TP 15
                                Chlorophyll 3.5
                                Sechi Transparency 3m

Eutrophic: culturally or naturally enriched with nutrients and
                                        Organic matter
        TP 40
                                Chlorophyll 12
                                Sechi Transparency 1.3m
                
All the ponds bottoms are granatic, glacial outwash left from the last ice age, approximately 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. They are naturally clear (ie have low phytoplankton biomass. All the ponds are acidic and have been so for thousands of years. This makes pond sensitive to loading of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) or mineral acids. There is one factor that is so obvious that it can be easily overlooked. All fresh water on the Cape depends solely on the precipitation that falls locally. The rain that does not evaporate or run into the Bay or Ocean is absorbed and is either pumped out, finds its way into an aquifer or feeds the ponds. That is, all the ponds are ground water dominated systems. No rivers or other sources of water from off Cape flow into the ponds. This means that with few exceptions such as acid rain, the conditions of our groundwater and ponds are determined locally.

There is one last factor that segues into a discussion of Gull Pond specifically. All ponds greater than 10 acres are Great Ponds as established by Colonial Ordinance 0f 1641 and amended in 1647. This law, as it remains today, grants the title to the bed of a great pond to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The state has the right to control and regulate the use of Great Ponds, or convey the title of a Great Pond to the National Park Service. The state has done so in Truro and Provincetown, but the state continues to hold title to ponds in Wellfleet. Similarly, the state can delegate regulatory authority to local towns and has done so in Wellfleet. This has allowed Wellfleet to enact rules and regulations concerning pond activities that are enforceable by local police.

Gull Pond is complex in many ways. It is the largest and deepest pond in the National Seashore at 106 acres and 19 meters deep. The town of Wellfleet owns a 5 acre parcel with 379 linear feet of shoreline which it obtained already in the 1940’s for use as a town beach, now accessible to those with Wellfleet beach stickers. The town licenses a private boat rental concession at the beach, whose customers have access to the beach without beach stickers. On Saturday, August 9th there were about 40 water vehicles of different types visible at the boat rental. The town provides a rack for 68 canoes and several boat moorings. There are 21 private shoreline homes, all with wells and septic systems. The National Seashore owns all other land bordering the pond. As a final complexity, at the time the Park was formed, the federal government acquired two parcels bordering the pond that were not built on but which are encumbered with deeded rights of exclusive use by specific homeowners. After years of discussion, the National Seashore reached an agreement with one of the homeowners on February 27, 1995 acknowledging that a specific group of homeowners has the exclusive right of use of the two “recreational beaches”, although the enforcement of this agreement has be extremely uneven.

I realized, in preparing for this talk, that I have witnessed the change of Gull Pond from near pristine, oligotrophic as reported in 1976, to, as described in a 2000 paper co-authored by John Portnoy, “the Eutrophic Gull Pond”. The rapid rate of plant growth has been most apparent to us. Many of us in GUPACA remember when Gull Pond had a nearly unblemished sand bottom. These are not childhood reminiscences from the prospective of old age: these changes have been occurring over the last 20 years at an increasing rate. As GUPACA we made some significant errors in addressing the changes to the bed of the pond. We consistently referred to this as “weed growth” in our discussions with the scientists who advised us, usually from the National Seashore. This often sidetracked the discussion into a lesson that these are plants, not weeds. We should have spent more time learning about the plants as indications of the status of the pond. What we called weeds are “macrophytes”- aquatic plants. They are emergent, ie breaking the surface, or submerged. They are either indigenous to the ponds or invasive, but they are not weeds. The most common plant in Gull Pond is the thin leafed lobelia dortmann that is normally associated with oligotrophic, ie near pristine, ponds. Therefore, the presence of these plants did not disturb the scientists monitoring the ponds as much as they disturbed us. As a generalization (with apologies to the scientists for making a generalization) the presence of the broad leafed plants also now appearing in Gull Pond are more indicative of the eutrophic state of the pond. It is the algae growth on the bed of the pond that we find most disturbing. This is periphyton, or attached algae, as opposed to the drifting algae or phytoplankton, that is a factor in the clarity of the water. The mougetia species of filamentous green algae now coats the bed of vast areas of Gull Pond as a mat on the bottom. We should have made more exact descriptions of the quantity and types of plants appearing in Gull Pond. In 2000 John Portnoy and others presented a study on Aquatic Vegetation and Trophic Condition of Cape Cod National Seashore Kettle Ponds” that was published in the scientific journal Hydrobiologia in 2001. The study identified and mapped the plants in Gull Pond, and the acceptance of the paper for publication attests to the quality of the study. What we needed additionally was an ongoing effort that recorded the annual increase in type and distribution of the plants and algae. That is, there is no data showing changes in plant growth for Gull Pond similar to the data for nitrogen, phosphorus, temperature and water clarity that is collected annually. So the rapid rate in plant growth in Gull Pond remains anecdotal in scientific terms.

Water clarity is measured by lowering a disc with a distinctive black and white pattern, called a secchi disk, into the water at the end of a pole. The depth at which the disk is no longer visible is taken as the measure of the transparency of the water, expressed in meters. The transparency of the pond water varies in a somewhat consistent pattern within the year so transparency measurements are taken several times during the year. As there are no factors affecting the color of the Gull Pond water, as one gets in lakes in the southern states for example, the water clarity of Gull Pond is affected primarily by the amount of phytoplankton, which again is determined by nitrogen and phosphorus in the pond. Gull Ponds shallowest annual clarity readings averaging 3.5 to 5.5 meters classify it as mesotrophic, or midway to eutrophic. What is equally disturbing is that in the 1970s at the deepest annual reading, the secchi disk was visible in Gull Pond to a depth of 10 to 15 meters. The maximum depth the disc was visible in 2004 through 2006 varied between 7.3 and 8.2 meters.

The data that has been collected by the Seashore often going back to the 1980s confirms that the pond is overloaded with nitrates and phosphates, which has led to the plant and algae growth. Over the years the speakers who have addressed our annual meetings have had different opinions as to whether nitrogen or phosphorus is the critical factor causing increased plant and algae growth. At times we have been told that nitrogen is the determinant, or that phosphorus is, or the combination. The sources are clearer. Nitrogen moves rapidly through Cape soil to the ponds (approximately a foot a day) but it also breaks down in the ponds. The problem occurs when the rate of nitrogen addition exceeds the rate of breakdown. That is, nitrogen saturation occurs when the nitrogen-removal capacity of the ecosystem through algae assimilation and denitrification is exceeded by excess nitrogen accumulating as dissolved nitrate oxide. Septic leachate, fertilizers, bathers urinating in or near the pond, rain, and run-off are all cited as sources of nitrogen.

Phosphorus moves much more slowly as it is held by iron in the ground. It can take 90 years to travel 300 feet. However, once phosphorus reaches the ponds it stays there forever. Dishwasher detergents are particularly high in phosphates which are introduced into the groundwater through septic leachate. In addition, Gull Pond has a specific problem, associated with its name. John Portnoy calculated that prior to the closure of the landfill, gulls accounted for 52 kilograms per year of phosphorus entering Gull Pond , an amount equal to 78% of the load from surrounding septic systems. Sedimentary reserves of phosphates released by oxygen depletion causes chemical release of phosphorus.

The National Seashore has provided us with a great deal of data on Gull Pond, which is available in on the GUPACA website. We have recently become aware of a new problem in Gull Pond. This year there is a sign posted on Gull Pond cautioning us not to not eat fish caught in Gull Pond because of mercury levels in the fish. This is the first time we have heard of the mercury warning.

The Wellfleet Health Agent monitors Gull Pond for coliform. For the 13 weeks of the summer season water samples are taken weekly from the town beach and the sluice and sent to the county laboratory in Barnstable. Perhaps the sole bright spot for Gull Pond is that coliform has been absent in all tests for at least for this year and last year.

No agency tests the well water in properties bordering Gull Pond. For several years GUPACA has urged its members to have their well water tested and share the results. For a $30.00 fee the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment Water Quality Laboratory will test well water for copper, iron, sodium, conductance, nitrate, acidity and coliform. The test results provided voluntarily by GUPACA members are also available on the GUPACA website. The reports show high quality drinking water. The only problem which sometimes appears in well-water is elevated levels of sodium. This appears to correlate with proximity to the ocean and would therefore be the result of salt water spray.

So who are the enemy who have overloaded this pond with nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemicals? Who is the “us”? To one degree or another we are all the enemy. Gull Pond is a major recreation attraction for the Town of Wellfleet. Many thousands of visitors use the pond each season. Boats and other water vehicles enable visitors to range all over the pond, although there are bathrooms only at the town beach. Cars at the town beach parking lot have killed the vegetation there. That combined with the beach and boat ramp have eliminated the vegetation in a large area that normally buffers run off. The town has been, perhaps understandably, reluctant to take any action that would reduce the use of Gull Pond.

The National Seashore does a great job of monitoring the water quality of the pond and the rangers sometimes enforce the no parking rules on the back roads around the pond. I am unclear, given the Commonwealth ownership of the pond and the general Park philosophy of reluctance to interfere with nature, whether the National Seashore would even be able to take specific remedial actions.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has known for years that emissions from fossil burning plants carry toxic substances that are deposited in ponds downwind of the plants. This is particularly the case for coal burning power plants, but little has been done by our federal government to address the problem.

The twenty-one homeowners bordering the pond do not have restrictions placed on them other than building setbacks. An owner is not required to upgrade septic systems to the current Ttitle V standard unless or until the owner needs a building permit for a renovation. Some owners have suspiciously healthy lawns. Many owners are spending more time each year on the pond and have added amenities such as dishwashers.

We have also learned that the natural progression of a pond is from pristine condition to ultimately becoming a field. So in reality all we have been talking about is the rate of progression of a natural phenomenon. Is this to occur in geological time or our lifetime. During the dialogue part of this evenings session my first question to my colleagues on this panel will be whether the rate of change in Gull Pond can be reversed or slowed given the progression to this point?

If remediation can be effective then the discussion becomes one of a cost benefit ratio. The costs are both monetary and cultural, ie in reduced use of Gull Pond.
We have identified some initial steps that are obvious to us:

  1. Require all septic systems on properties bordering the pond to be upgraded to Title V.
  2. Ban the sale in Wellfleet of dishwasher detergents containing phosphates. There are now several brands of phosphate-free detergents that have proven to be effective. One of them, Seventh Generation, is available at the Wellfleet Market. It is also available at the Stop and Shop in Orleans, as well as a second brand, Ecover
  3. Mandate a fertilizer-free buffer of 100 to 200 feet from the pond edge
  4. Renew the vegetation buffer at the town beach. GUPACA had also advocated that the license for Jack’s boat rental not be renewed 2 years ago. We recognize that this is a popular attraction for visitors, but in the context of this discussion there must be concern about the amount and dispersion of crowds on the pond. None of the other ponds in Wellfleet has such a concession.

There are more substantive remedial actions that have been used in Cape ponds. Gull Pond seems to have had lime added at least twice, sometime in the 1970’s or early 1980s to reduce its acidity. I could find only one sketchy reference to this. It is beyond GUPACA’s capability to comment on the benefit or other effects of liming. The example of the extreme end of the spectrum of possible actions can be found in Long Pond that straddles the Brewster Harwich border. This is the largest pond on Cape Cod at 743 acres. In a $420,000 project that involved years of study and a $350,000 state grant, 70,000 gallons of aluminum sulfate were put in the pond last fall. Aluminum sulfate bonds with phosphates and keeps them inertly on the lake bed. The results are being monitored this year. As GUPACA we are only reporting that this was done. It is far beyond our capability to comment further.

Finally, the complicated web of ownership and regulatory authority for Gull Pond may be an enemy. After all these years we do not know where the relative authorities and responsibilities for Gull Pond lie among the Town of Wellfleet, Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the National Seashore. The eternal question around Gull Pond is who is responsible for what. All we know for certain is that the health of Gull Pond is suffering and that we have met the enemy and they are us.