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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

America’s Cape Cod has long been celebrated as a summer paradise where vacationers enjoy swimming in the surf, digging for clams, and fishing. But there’s trouble in paradise. The Cape is essentially a large sandbar that sits over an aquifer from which residents and visitors draw their water. They have to be very careful about what they take out of the ground and put into it. Most of the houses on the Cape dispose of waste water through septic systems, and that’s causing environmental problems. Nitrogen is building up in the bays on the Cape, depleting oxygen levels and killing shellfish and beneficial plants, and producing blooms of algae. If this keeps up, the Cape won’t continue to be attractive to vacationers–who provide the financial lifeblood of the economy.

The people of the Cape are faced with some uncomfortable truths. They must address the waste water problem, most likely by building sewer systems and water treatment facilities. This will cost billions of dollars, which likely will have to come from taxes and user fees.

In an effort to head off environmental and/or financial calamities, the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning group, has engaged with IBM to create the Smart Cape Cod initiative. The plan is to use sensing, networking, data management, and data analysis technologies to track a wide array of information related to water quality. By understanding the problem better, the commission and the governments of the 15 towns on the Cape hope to be able to address it most effectively–safeguarding the environment and easing the financial burden on residents and businesses. “We have to take innovative approaches,” says Paul Niedzwiecki, the commission’s executive director. “We have a substantial problem but not a lot of existing infrastructure. If we’re smarter about the solutions, we can do it less expensively–without breaking the backs of the year-round residents of the Cape.”

The Cape has just 220,000 year-round residents, but the population can triple during the tourist season. So the new waste water treatment systems will have to be built to handle peak demand. The commission believes that if the people of the Cape  address the problem themselves and use innovative technologies and approaches, the fix-up can be done for about $3 billion. It’s possible that only about 40% of the homes will require sewers. But if the towns tarry and are forced to act by state or federal agencies, or courts, the tab could be much higher.

Here’s some nasty algae in one of the bays:


There’s another benefit that could come from the initiative: economic development. The Cape is already home to two oceanographic laboratories and a number of water quality technology startups. It received a $32 million grant as part of the Federal stimulus program that’s being combined with other funds to build a high-speed broadband network,  called Open Cape.  Through the combination of expertise, networks, and data analysis, the Cape could develop water management as a new growth industry.

For IBM, the Smart Cape Cod project creates an opportunity to showcase and develop the company’s Smarter Planet technologies in a high-profile location. It has already launched major water projects in Ireland, Malta, and California’s Sonoma County. “The big lesson we have learned is you want to get as many people engaged in the process as possible. You want to drive an open, collaborative process,” says Michael Sullivan, a business development director in IBM Big Green Innovations.

For Sullivan and Sharon Nunes, who heads up IBM Big Green Innovations and the Smarter Cities initiative, there are personal motivations, as well. They both live on Cape Cod.

Here’s some additional info on IBM’s water projects:



Galway Bay:

Overview of wastewater situation on Cape:

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Posted by: Sal Mozier
March 15, 2011
8:18 pm

The oxygen levels will not be solved with a conventional process treatment plant. Westchester Co. NY has spent millions on pilot testing new ways to process the waste and still see lower levels of oxygen in Long Island Sound.
Dulition is no longer the solution.

Posted by: Wayne
November 30, 2010
3:35 pm

It will only address oxygen depletion in the coves of Cape Cod

Posted by: Steve Hamm
November 30, 2010
2:54 pm

I have seen documentaries about lower oxygen levels in the world’s oceans which leads to fish migration into waters with higher oxygen content (as in the poles) – that is a problem in and of itself for the fishing industry. I don’t dispute the need to clean up waste pollution at Cape Cod but will it necessarily fix the oxygen depletion problem?

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