Sustainability of the Sagamore Lens Aquifer Water Resources

sagamore lens labeledLocated on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Sagamore Lens is the largest of six groundwater lenses included in the Cape Cod Sole Source Aquifer, and is the public drinking water supply for the towns of Barnstable, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Sandwich, Yarmouth, and the Massachusetts Military Reserve (MMR). It provides water for extensive agricultural operations including 236 square miles of cranberry bogs, croplands, nurseries, pastures, and orchards. The Sagamore Lens is mapped as a Priority Habitat by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and it provides the water for 153 vernal pools, 180 fresh water ponds, 20 streams and rivers, and 250 miles of coastal shoreline. It also supports a vibrant seasonal tourist population that brings millions of dollars into the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the Sagamore Lens is experiencing increases in demand and contamination that need to be addressed.

Cape Cod was formed during the last continental deglaciation that occurred between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, and the glacial deposits tend to contain medium to coarse sand with finer sands at depth. These immensely permeable surface sands make for a very high yielding groundwater system – and also make the Cape Cod Aquifer extremely susceptible to contamination. Public and private wastewater systems, the MMR, and emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products have all contributed to the recent increased degradation of the Sagamore Lens. Fortunately, Cape Cod government and residents are acutely in tune with their natural resources and have taken steps to ensure the future health of the Cape’s Sole Source Aquifer.

wellhead protectionOver 30 years ago, policy makers and water planners worked vigorously to implement mechanisms to protect Cape Cod’s drinking water supply. One key implementation was the adoption of Wellhead Protection Areas to protect the lands that recharge wells. In addition, residents enthusiastically approved municipal acquisition of land for protection of wellhead areas, and cleanup of the significant MMR contamination began around this time.

Today, Tata & Howard is working with the Upper Cape Regional Water Supply Cooperative on an assessment of the sustainability of the Sagamore Lens. Sustainability requires that the aquifer not be completely used up or destroyed, and that it is protected and kept clean and plentiful for future generations. Unfortunately, the Cape Cod Aquifer has been recently compromised by contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), such as personal care products and pharmaceuticals, which have entered the aquifer through wastewater discharge. Tata & Howard’s study addresses the sustainability of the aquifer through 2030, taking into account different scenarios including drought conditions, wastewater injection, and increased demand.

beachThe study proposes utilizing a regional approach to manage withdrawals, construct adequate water supplies, monitor areas at risk as withdrawals increase, and to incorporate a Drought Management Plan. In addition, the study identifies preferred water supply areas as well as sources and areas at risk, and it proposes a management plan for wastewater disposal and MMR plumes, again using a regional approach.

For decades, Cape Cod government and residents have been progressive in their efforts to protect the area’s drinking water supply, and have taken steps to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and inhabit this naturally beautiful and ecologically rich area of the country. Through careful research, planning, and cooperative implementation, Cape Cod will remain a healthy seaside mecca for years to come.

Groundwater Awareness and Protection

An Introduction to Groundwater

Groundwater is an abundant and renewable natural resource comprised of the water that soaks into the earth from precipitation. This water moves downward to seep into cracks, crevices, and other openings in rock beds and sand. Groundwater makes up 95% of the world\’s freshwater, with surface water (lakes, rivers, and streams) making up only three percent of all freshwater. To put it into perspective, hydrologists estimate there are currently over 33,000 trillion gallons of groundwater in reserve in the U.S. – which is 20 to 30 times greater than the total amount of water in all of the lakes, streams, and rivers of the U.S.

Why It’s Important

hydrologic cycleGroundwater is an integral part of the hydrologic cycle, which includes all the water of the Earth including the atmosphere, oceans, surface water, and groundwater. The system is cyclical in that water repeatedly moves through all of these elements. In addition, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 25% of all U.S. rainfall becomes groundwater, and that 30% of U.S. stream flow originates from groundwater.

The U.S. uses about 80 billion gallons of fresh groundwater every day for public and private drinking water, irrigation, livestock, manufacturing, mining, and thermoelectric power. Over 40% of the nation’s population depends on groundwater for their drinking water supply, with private household wells comprising the largest percentage of all wells in the nation. Over 13 million households depend on private well water.

The Ogallala Aquifer

The largest use of groundwater in the U.S. is irrigation. Over 50 billion gallons of groundwater are used per day for agricultural purposes, up from just over 2 billion gallons per day in 1900. The nation’s largest aquifer is the Ogallala, which runs beneath 250,000 square miles stretching from Texas to South Dakota, and 90% of the water pumped from the Ogallala is used for agricultural irrigation. This massive and plentiful aquifer accounts for one-third of all U.S. irrigated agriculture, and creates about $20 billion in food and fiber annually. If the waters of the Ogallala were spread across the surface of the U.S., all 50 states would be covered with 1.5 feet of water. Yet, even though groundwater is plentiful and renewable, it still needs to be respected. Scientists estimate that if the Ogallala were fully withdrawn, it would take a whopping 6,000 years to refill it naturally. So we all need to take steps to conserve the groundwater – indeed, all water – that we have.

Best Conservation Practices

In the Home

  • Turn the faucet off when the water isn’t being used, such as while brushing your teeth or doing dishes.
  • Don’t pour fresh, unused water down the drain; use it to water plants or to fill a humidifier.
  • Install aerators with flow restrictors on household faucets.
  • When upgrading, choose water- and energy-efficient appliances, such as low-flow toilets and front-load washing machines.
  • Always repair a dripping faucet or leaking toilet; one wasted drop per second adds up to 2,700 gallons per year!
  • Only run a fully loaded dishwasher or washing machine, or set the water level to match the load size.
In an effort to save water, some golf courses, such as this one in Syracuse, NY, are allowing their signature lush green lawns to go brown. Dennis Nett/The Post-Standard/Landov
In an effort to save water, some golf courses, such as this one in Syracuse, NY, are allowing their signature lush green lawns to go brown.
Dennis Nett/The Post-Standard/Landov

In the Yard

  • Raise the mower blade to the highest level to allow your lawn to retain its moisture and to strengthen the root system.
  • Plant native, drought-resistant grasses, shrubs, and trees.
  • Don’t overwater your lawn. Heavy rain eliminates the need to water for up to two weeks, and a bright green lawn is truly overrated. As they say in California, where the drought has reached a critical state, “Brown is the New Green.” A lawn that isn’t perfectly and uniformly dark green indicates a future-minded, caring, and responsible resident.

Groundwater is clearly an extremely important natural resource, and one that deserves our care. Stay tuned later this week as we showcase a Cape Cod aquifer, its uses, safety, sustainability, and protection.

For more information on groundwater, visit

For fun and educational kids’ activities, please visit