The discharge of excess nitrogen into Popponesset Bay, an estuarine system on western Cape Cod, has resulted in eutrophication and the loss of eel grass habitat within the estuaries. Septic-system return flow in residential areas within the watershed is the primary source of nitrogen. Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nitrogen have been assigned to the six estuaries that compose the system, and local communities are in the process of implementing the TMDLs by the partial sewering, treatment, and disposal of treated wastewater at wastewater-treatment facilities (WTFs). Loads of waste-derived nitrogen from both current (1997–2001) and future sources can be estimated implicitly from parcel-scale water-use data and recharge areas delineated by a groundwater-flow model. These loads are referred to as “instantaneous” loads because it is assumed that the nitrogen from surface sources is delivered to receptors instantaneously and that there is no traveltime through the aquifer. The use of a solute-transport model to explicitly simulate the transport of mass through the aquifer from sources to receptors can improve implementation of TMDLs by (1) accounting for traveltime through the aquifer, (2) avoiding limitations associated with the estimation of loads from static recharge areas, (3) accounting more accurately for the effect of surface waters on nitrogen loads, and (4) determining the response of waste-derived nitrogen loads to potential wastewater-management actions.
The load of nitrogen to Popponesset Bay on western Cape Cod, which was estimated by using current sources as input to a solute-transport model based on a steady-state flow model, is about 50 percent of the instantaneous load after about 7 years of transport (loads to estuary are equal to loads discharged from sources); this estimate is consistent with simulated advective traveltimes in the aquifer, which have a median of 5 years. Model-calculated loads originating from recharge areas reach 80 percent of the instantaneous load within 30 years; this result indicates that loads estimated from recharge areas likely are reasonable for estimating current instantaneous loads. However, recharge areas are assumed to remain static as stresses and hydrologic conditions change in response to wastewater-management actions.
Sewering of the Popponesset Bay watershed would not change hydraulic gradients and recharge areas to receptors substantially; however, disposal of wastewater from treatment facilities can change hydraulic gradients and recharge areas to nearby receptors, particularly if the facilities are near the boundary of the recharge area. In these cases, nitrogen loads implicitly estimated by using current recharge areas that do not accurately represent future hydraulic stresses can differ significantly from loads estimated with recharge areas that do represent those stresses. Nitrogen loads to two estuaries in the Popponesset Bay system estimated by using recharge areas delineated for future hydrologic conditions and nitrogen sources were about 3 and 9 times higher than loads estimated by using current recharge areas; for this reason, reliance on static recharge areas can present limitations for effective TMDL implementation by means of a hypothetical, but realistic, wastewater-management action. A solute-transport model explicitly represents nitrogen transport from surface sources and does not rely on the use of recharge areas; because changes in gradients resulting from wastewater-management actions are accounted for in transport simulations, they provide more reliable predictions of future nitrogen loads.
Explicitly representing the mass transport of nitrogen can better account for the mechanisms by which nitrogen enters the estuary and improve estimates of the attenuation of nitrogen concentrations in fresh surface waters. Water and associated nitrogen can enter an estuary as either direct groundwater discharge or as surface-water inflow. Two estuaries in the Popponesset Bay watershed receive surface-water inflows: Shoestring Bay receives water from the Santuit River, and the tidal reach of the Mashpee River receives water (and associated nitrogen) from the nontidal reach of the Mashpee River. Much of the water discharging into these streams passes through ponds prior to discharge. The additional attenuation of nitrogen in groundwater that has passed through a pond and discharged into a stream prior to entering an estuary is about 3 kilograms per day.
Advective-transport times in the aquifer generally are small—median traveltimes are about 4.5 years—and nitrogen loads at receptors respond quickly to wastewater-management actions. The simulated decreases in nitrogen loads were 50 and 80 percent of the total decreases within 5 and 15 years, respectively, after full sewering of the watershed and within 3 and 10 years, for sequential phases of partial sewering and disposal at WTFs. The results show that solute-transport models can be used to assess the responses of nitrogen loads to wastewater-management actions, and that loads at ecological receptors (receiving waters—ponds, streams or coastal waters—that support ecosystems) will respond within a few years to those actions.
The responses vary for individual receptors as functions of hydrologic setting, traveltimes in the aquifer, and the unique set of nitrogen sources representing current and future wastewater-disposal actions within recharge areas. Changes in nitrogen loads from groundwater discharge to individual estuaries range from a decrease of 90 percent to an increase of 80 percent following sequential phases of hypothetical but realistic wastewater-management actions. The ability to explicitly represent the transport of mass through the aquifer allows for the evaluation of complex responses that include the effects of surface waters, traveltimes, and complex changes in sources. Most of the simulated decreases in nitrogen loads to Shoestring Bay and the tidal portion of the Mashpee River, 79 and 69 percent, respectively, were caused by decreases in the nitrogen loads from surface-water inflow.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
The simulated effects of wastewater-management actions on the hydrologic system and nitrogen-loading rates to wells and ecological receptors, Popponesset Bay Watershed, Cape Cod, Massachusetts