Fixing Nitrogen

The local wastewater treatment plant probably isn’t the first place you’d choose to spend a Saturday afternoon. But as algal blooms devoured the oxygen in Falmouth’s ponds and the fish floated belly-up, the coastal town’s idyllic waters started to smell worse than the treatment plant. A day with the wastewater might not seem so bad after all.

Amy Lowell, Falmouth Wastewater Superintendent, explains nitrogen removal at the treatment plant

Decades-long resistance to sewering in Falmouth meant the town continued to depend on residential septic systems. Nitrogen poured from those septic systems into the ponds, feeding the algae blooms that choked out aquatic life.

This is a story about procrastination, ponds, and pee, but it is also a story about resilience. As algae clouded the water and the shellfish disappeared, every pond neighborhood in Falmouth grappled with the same dilemma. Falmouth doesn’t have the money to build sewers all over town, and even state-of-the-art septic systems don’t do anything about the nitrogen. Without sewers, how could people save their ponds?

Falmouth’s communities have taken matters into their own hands, and their own backyards, joining forces against nitrogen and seeking innovative new ways to combat algae blooms. Falmouth is a town with a clear mission. Though its quest may not seem like the most glamorous tale, the town is determined that nitrogen pollution will not be a part of its future.

The Producers

Amelia Ahring and Nicole Pollack

“We enjoyed the creative freedom that we had within our story, which gave us the opportunity to keep reconstructing our narrative until we came to a final product. One challenge we would like to highlight is that Amelia doesn’t have a Mac, which meant that more work had to be done on Nicole’s computer, and if we had to work on something after class, Nicole would always need to be there. We have limited access to the Woods Hole community while at SEA, and we valued the chance to sit down with local residents who offered us a glimpse into a town that cares about its people and the land around it.”