Cape Cod Rivers Getting Needed Attention

Jul 30, 2018

Cape Cod is known for beaches, not rivers. But rivers are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding and addressing coastal water quality issues. And it turns out that the Cape’s rivers have been relatively neglected by scientists as well as the public. Not so anymore.

After years of working on large rivers around the world, Max Holmes is turning his attention to the rivers in his own back yard with an initiative called Cape Cod Rivers Observatory. Holmes is deputy director of Woods Hole Research Center and a senior scientist with the Global Rivers Observatory project.

The idea started when his 10-year-old son became obsessed with trout fishing during a trip to Colorado.

“I was trying to figure out where in Massachusetts can we go and catch trout – thinking that we’d have to go somewhere out in Western Massachusetts or something like that,” Holmes said. “And I found to my surprise that there are some rivers on the Cape that have wild, native, sea-run brook trout.”

That made him more curious about Cape Cod rivers. Because of the Cape’s well-known problem of nitrogen loading in estuaries and bays, Holmes assumed that someone was sampling the rivers to look for changes. But it was not the case. Sporatic sampling had been done, but nothing consistent.

Holmes asked WHRC volunteer Rob Stenson to do some sampling, a task he took on with remarkable dedication.

“For two years, every week, either Wednesday or Thursday, he’s gone out,” Holmes said. “First on six rivers, now we’re working on nine rivers.”

Since then, Stenson has continued to take measurements of the chemistry of the rivers, including the nitrogen load.

Holmes immediately learned that not all the Cape rivers are the same and they have very different chemical signatures. Seasonal patterns quickly came into focus. Holmes has made the data available to anyone who wants to download it.

It’s too early to say whether town and county efforts to reduce nitrogen runoff are making a difference, but Holmes says the the sampling will eventually answer that question.  

“Hopefully this will all feed back to informing better management decisions on the Cape,” he said.

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