Largest Estuaries Project in Commonwealth History Nears Halfway Point

A $1.2-million award has been received by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to finance the 2005 segment of the largest estuaries project in the Commonwealth's history. The award is part of a $12.5-million project that began in 2002.

A $1.2-million award has been received by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to finance the 2005 segment of the largest estuaries project in the Commonwealth’s history. The award is part of a $12.5-million project that began in 2002. 

Now approaching the half-way point of its six-year anticipated duration, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) has forged a state/local/academic partnership to halt, reverse, and in some cases prevent the degradation of the state’s estuaries. 

“The Estuaries Project has completed two years of analyzing the estuarine water quality problem,” says Andrew Gottlieb, Deputy Secretary of the Office for Commonwealth Development, “and everybody should take some comfort in the fact that the technical reports are showing that the problem is manageable.” 

“The driving force behind this project,” says Prof. Brian Howes of UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST), “is that for many southeastern Massachusetts coastal communities, water quality and quality of life are the same thing.” Howes’ Coastal Systems Laboratory is providing data collection, analysis and modeling to the project. The lab has now completed data collection on more than half of the embayments in the study area-the Massachusetts coast from Plymouth to the Rhode Island border. 

Says SMAST Director Brian Rothschild, “Howes’ work is a great example of the role played by SMAST in serving the Commonwealth and the community. Informed environmental decisions are the future of Massachusetts." 

Coastal embayments serve in a multitude of crucial natural roles, from flood control basins to fish nurseries, as well as supporting recreation and general quality of life for coastal residents and visitors. However, the health of a majority of the Commonwealth’s estuaries has worsened-in some cases critically-under development pressures. 

The central goal of the Estuaries Project is to determine the nutrient capacity of each estuary, the rate at which it can accept nutrient-principally nitrogen-input without significant degradation. From there, DEP and SMAST provide guidance, but it’s the municipalities that control their own destinies. With a quantitative limit in hand, the towns make the ultimate decisions as to how to keep nutrient input to an estuary within that limit, or well below it in the case of actually reversing the degradation of an estuary that requires restoration. 

“The project is unique in the U.S.,” says Howes, “in that it provides a conduit directly from science to management.” The project is also bringing new technologies, approaches, and regulatory guidance to bear to reduce the costs of ongoing community efforts toward estuarine restoration. 

The new cycle of funding this spring will bring the number of embayments under investigation to 60 out of the 89 that the MEP has committed to evaluate over the lifetime of the project. 

“With a lot of hard work,” says Howes, “this doesn’t have to be the last generation to understand that an estuary is more than just a place to park your boat.” 


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