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What are estuaries?

View Estuary Prioritization List  |  View Additional Project Documents

Estuaries are special bodies of water occurring when the sea extends inland and meets the mouth of a river or streams. The estuaries of Southeastern Massachusetts - the harbors and bays of Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay and the Islands - are ecosystems that provide home and habitat for shellfish and sea grasses and breeding grounds for important commercial offshore marine fisheries. Rapid population growth over several decades has created an abundance of nutrients that have leached into the estuaries through ground and surface waters. Nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, act as a fertilizer to aquatic plants. The result: changes in water quality and the buildup of invasive weed and algal growth causing fish kills, closed beaches, destroyed productive shellfish areas and creating aesthetically displeasing waters that adversely affect the valuable tourist industry and coastal property values.


What is the Massachusetts Estuaries Program?
     The Massachusetts Estuaries Project effort will begin to fix this problem by determining all of the factors specific to each estuary that are causing the problem. Project partners will determine the geographic area contributing nutrients to a specific estuary, determine what the nutrient sources are, what the nutrient load is, and how great a nutrient load the estuaries can tolerate without dramatically changing their character and usages. In most cases, returning the estuaries to the water quality condition that support sensitive shellfish habitats and lush eel grass beds, it will be necessary to remove a significant percentage of the nutrient loadings coming from an estuary's watershed. Nutrient removal may come primarily in the form wastewater treatment and secondarily through storm water management programs including of limited use of lawn fertilizers. In some scenarios, changing the water flow within an estuary to increase flushing may compliment nutrient reduction and removal efforts.

     This project will provide water quality, nutrient loading, and hydrodynamic information for 89 estuaries in Southeastern Massachusetts. This information will be combined through the use of a linked watershed/estuary model that will predict the water quality changes that will result from land use management decisions. Over the next six years a report for each of the 89 estuaries will evaluate several water quality conditions and how that relates to the health of the estuary and the land use changes necessary to bring about that improvement. This project is a collaborative effort by two state agencies, the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (through the Department of Environmental Protection) and the University of Massachusetts's School of Marine Science and Technology and is subsidized by funding that allows communities to undertake this evaluation at approximately 40 percent of the actual cost.

View Estuary Prioritization List