In Memoriam – John Ross

We are deeply saddened by the passing of John Ross of West Falmouth. John was at the core of so much of the Coalition’s work since our very beginning, serving on the Board of Directors for 10 years including three years as Board Chair. He came to the Coalition in the 1990s after noticing the health of his beloved West Falmouth Harbor declining. Due in great part to his determination, the harbor is now on the road to recovery.

For his leadership on cleaning up nitrogen pollution in West Falmouth Harbor, John received the 2014 Buzzards Bay Guardian Award – the highest honor granted by the Coalition. Buzzards Bay Guardians are unsung heroes who deserve public recognition, not only for what they have achieved but to inspire others to make a difference.

To commemorate John, we’d like to share our remarks from his Guardian Award presentation. John’s passion and advocacy will be greatly missed, but his commitment to West Falmouth Harbor will endure for generations.

Mark Rasmussen, Laura Shachoy, and John Ross at the 2014 Buzzards Bay Coalition Annual Meeting

John Ross of West Falmouth (right) received the Coalition’s 2014 Buzzards Bay Guardian Award – the highest honor given to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding service in the cleanup, restoration, or protection of the Bay.

What if everyone responded to harm against the Bay as an insult to an ancestor, a theft from a sibling, or a threat to a grandchild? What if it was that personal? What if Buzzards Bay, right down to its smallest coves, was not a backdrop – the set upon which we live our lives here in this very special corner of New England – but a central part of the cast of your family’s life story?

To understand John Ross’s commitment to West Falmouth Harbor, you have to imagine the Bay as part of your family. And not just any old cousin, but as the family member that binds all others together, across generations.

John Ross first contacted the fledgling Buzzards Bay Coalition in the early 1990s to seek help in figuring out what exactly was going on with his beloved harbor. Along with other neighbors and members of the West Falmouth Boat Club, he noticed that instead of the thick meadows of eelgrass, abundant bay scallop harvests, and clear waters which for years had been the harbor’s legacy, he observed clouded and murky waters, thick algae blooms, and a surprising absence of eelgrass and shellfish. His harbor seemed to be dying.

John mobilized the village of West Falmouth to get to the bottom of what was happening. They raised funds for a scientific investigation, evaluated their legal options, and began speaking up at Town Hall. A lot.

As many had feared, the story of West Falmouth Harbor’s decline had actually begun a decade earlier, when the town of Falmouth approved a new and expanded sewer system resulting in the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant in West Falmouth on Telegraph Hill, less than a mile uphill from the harbor. Skeptical residents had questioned the siting of the plant at that location but were assured that there would be no adverse impacts to the harbor. And for a decade it seemed that that might be true.

But what we all learned – a lesson that continues to play itself out time and again here on Cape Cod – the nitrogen pollution that was being discharged into the ground at the Falmouth sewer plant just hadn’t made it to the harbor yet. It was silently traveling underground at a rate of only feet per day. But when it eventually started breaking out in the harbor it was clear that the town of Falmouth needed to clean up its act. They had effectively “solved” the town’s sewer issues by transferring the problem to West Falmouth Harbor and the result was turning one of Buzzards Bay’s most pristine harbors into its most nitrogen polluted.

For John Ross, the 1990s became a struggle for recognition of the problem in West Falmouth: first in Town Hall and then at the state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. EPA. But the worsening condition of the harbor each summer, combined with hard data from the Coalition’s then new Baywatchers water quality monitoring program, were ultimately undeniable. And John Ross made sure everyone knew what was going on and demanded action.

And in 2006, those many years of tireless advocacy paid off, when after 20 years of polluting West Falmouth Harbor, the wastewater plant got a $15 million facelift which included new treatment processes capable of removing 97% of the nitrogen in its discharge. While the upgrade was a major step forward in improving the health of West Falmouth Harbor, it did not restore it overnight.

Now came the time to shore up the full restoration of the harbor. With the wastewater plant fixed, the task turned to locking in strict state and federal regulatory limits capping future sources of nitrogen, thereby ensuring that once the harbor does recover, it will not be threatened again. Those legal and regulatory victories came in 2008 and 2012 with the establishment of a firm Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the harbor under the Clean Water Act and a new discharge permit for the town that ensured that the plant complies with the new limits.

After 25 years of dogged advocacy, today John Ross – and all of us – are looking forward to the recovery. In the next few years, scientists agree that we should begin to see the rebound of West Falmouth Harbor as the nitrogen-laden groundwater plume slowly runs out. The endless hearings, regulatory comments, and legal briefs are done. Now nature has to do her part.

In the midst of the long West Falmouth drama, in 2004, John joined the Buzzards Bay Coalition Board of Directors and worked to bring the crucial lessons of what was happening in his backyard to the broader Bay community. He became an active member of our Public Policy Committee helping to guide our advocacy on nitrogen pollution in all bay towns, with state and federal agencies, and even in the courts. He also set out to make sure that there was no one in the village of West Falmouth who did not know of the work of the Buzzards Bay Coalition and our organization’s role in securing the cleanup of the harbor. If you’re from West Falmouth here tonight, I’m sure you remember the time John knocked on your door or called you up to tell you about the Coalition. As a result, West Falmouth is one of the strongest pockets of Coalition membership support in the entire region.

Between 2007 and 2010, John served as chair of the Coalition Board of Directors, guiding the organization into a period of growth with its first-ever strategic plan and the launch of what would become an $11 million Capital Campaign. The legacy of John Ross’s leadership is evident today throughout the Coalition.

John Ross has proven that real breakthroughs in Bay restoration happen when tireless advocates never give up. It’s an important lesson for all of us who struggle each day to protect this place. And to fuel 25-plus years of ceaseless advocacy, it takes more than a passing interest in the benefits of water quality improvement. That fuel needs to come from someplace much deeper. In the case of John Ross, we think it comes from a sense of commitment to many generations – past and future – who enjoyed and deserve a clean and healthy West Falmouth Harbor and Buzzards Bay.

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