Thousands of drivers navigate the intersection of Routes 6 and 140 each day, unaware that there is a waterway beneath their wheels. They are crossing Buttonwood Brook, which is channeled through an underground culvert to emerge at the north end of the Buttonwood Park, where it feeds the pond and continues on its way south to Dartmouth’s Apponagansett Bay.
Buttonwood Brook originates near the Hidden Brook Apartment complex in New Bedford, north of St. Mary’s Cemetery. Including its tributaries, there are 9 miles of watercourse that eventually empty into Dartmouth’s Apponagansett Bay. It’s a tiny fraction of the 700 miles of small streams that weave through the Buzzards Bay watershed.
It may be small, but the impact of the pollution it transports is not. Apponagansett Bay’s water quality consistently places it in the bottom 10% of the 30 major harbors and coves in the Buzzards Bay watershed.
Dan Goulart manages the Buttonwood Brook-Apponagansett Bay Restoration Project, undertaken by the Buzzards Bay Coalition in collaboration with the City of New Bedford and the Town of Dartmouth, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program, Buttonwood Park Zoo, Friends of Buttonwood Park, Woodwell Climate Research Center, Marine Biological Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Dartmouth Natural Resource Trust.
It’s the first comprehensive study of Buttonwood Brook and its tributaries, with the goal of identifying and prioritizing the sources of pollution. Just to begin with, there are 60 outfalls that dump stormwater into the brook, Goulart says. According to the EPA, “Runoff from stormwater continues to be a major cause of water pollution in urban areas. It carries trash, bacteria, heavy metals, and other pollutants through storm sewers into local waterways.” Outdated septic systems are another source of contamination.
A five-year grant from the Southeast New England Program of the Environmental Protection Agency provided initial funding of about $750,000 for the project, which began in 2021.
For New Bedford native Goulart, environmental science is a second career, which he embarked on after serving the United States in the Navy SEALs for 30 years.
Goulart earned a bachelor of science degree in public health from Walden University and holds graduate certificates in sustainable cities and communities, and in sustainable food systems, from the Harvard University Extension School, and in Green Stormwater Management from the University of New Hampshire. He joined the Buzzards Bay Coalition in February 2022, and received his master’s degree in sustainability from Harvard University Extension in November.
A board member of the Friends of Buttonwood Park, he lives in New Bedford with his wife Gloria, his son Ethan, a freshman at Bristol Community College, and his daughter Sophia, who attends Keith Middle School.
Goulart tells The Light about the Buttonwood Brook-Apponagansett Bay Restoration Project, his passion for environmental work, and a bit about his first career.
New Bedford Light: Where in New Bedford did you grow up?
Dan Goulart: Just at the top of Common Park, back behind Parker Elementary, Lucas and Chestnut [streets]. That was my stomping ground as a kid. There were a lot of great days of sledding at Common Park. It was a magnet for kids from all over that part of New Bedford to come with their sleds … it was a cool neighborhood to grow up in. …
I was always around the water. I used to ride my bike down to East and West Beaches … actually my grandparents lived in the house that’s right on the corner of Brock and Rodney French, right at the very end … so I spent a lot of time at that house walking to the two beaches, running around the tunnels at Battery Milliken [at Fort Rodman], just getting into mischief all over the place.
For me, mentally I was always connected to the ocean. I could never imagine living inland somewhere. Every time I think about something, I’m referencing it to the ocean and to the bay. And you know, Buzzards Bay is sort of my home bay. After being gone for 30 years, I swam back to my home bay.
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NBL: Tell me about your journey from Navy SEAL to environmental project manager.
DG: I joined right out of high school, actually. I was a big swimmer, cross-country runner, surfer … real water-oriented, just always looking for the next challenge. A friend of mine, Glenn Mercer, who had graduated New Bedford High a year earlier, had joined the Navy. And he came back one time and said, “You need to go be a SEAL.” I was like, OK. I had no idea. I was 17 [in 1987] when I joined the Navy. … Back then they used to just ask ‘Who wants to be a SEAL or a diver?’ and you raised your hand. You got one shot at taking the screening test and if you made it, you made it. If not, you got assigned to some ship somewhere. [He retired in 2017, after serving 30 years.]
It just went by like the blink of an eye. I visited 63 countries during that time, spent almost my last decade living overseas working in some really interesting places — some nice, some not so nice.
I did my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I also got the chance to work in Uganda for several years, lived in Stuttgart, Germany, worked in Sri Lanka and Maldives, India, Malaysia, and a few other places that are just really fantastic experiences to better understand people all over the world. …
Being in the Maldives … was a turning point for me as I approached my 30-year mark and was thinking about what I would do next in life. I was on an island in the southern Maldives and it began to inundate with water almost completely. It was an epiphany moment for me as to what I might do next, in my second life, after the military: to be a part of this fight against climate change or some sort of environmental cause that can reverse some of the trends that we’ve seen over the last 50 years.
NBL: Many people are probably unaware that there’s a brook running through their backyards.
DG: The brook mostly has been squeezed in by development, but there are pocket forests along its route. And if you look at this area from a satellite view, really the brook is the last remaining green corridor in our whole area, at least in the city proper. Everything else has been developed. These little pocket forests are important for a variety of reasons. They serve a lot of cooling and biodiversity purposes, and they also let wildlife move up and down those corridors. But [the pocket forests] are also doing this amazing thing where they’re removing bacteria and nutrients from the brook because they still have intact floodplains. …
One of the things that made me want to get into this field was this whole notion of nature-based solutions. The fact that if we just give nature a little bit of space within our cities, it can do amazing things for our water quality, it can mitigate heat island effects, it can generally just improve people’s quality of life. And if we give people access to those pockets of nature, we can probably improve their mental health, too. …
We’re spending all this time doing this research and then we’re going to advocate for solutions through green infrastructure or nature-based solutions, in partnership with the municipalities. A big piece of that in my mind is improving people’s access to green space.
NBL: You describe this project as “reversing 100 years of bad behavior.” What does that include?
[Goulart studied the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, which have been produced since the 1880s, to assess the environmental impact of development.]
DG: When I looked at those maps, specifically focusing on the Buttonwood watershed, what you see is a fairly slow development pattern up until the post-war era. In the 1950s, there’s suddenly an explosion of development within the Buttonwood Brook watershed, particularly on the west side and heading south into Dartmouth. We see large suburban sprawl start to take effect between 1950 and the late ’70s when wetland regulations finally came into effect … a lot of that development occurred in the wetlands on either side of Buttonwood Brook and its tributaries, sort of removing that wetland by filling in and squeezing the brook into this narrow channel, which is incised into the ground and rapidly moves water downstream, instead of doing what some of those intact pocket forests are. Then you add to that this really efficient system of drains and pipes [gray infrastructure] that we’ve built to collect stormwater, aggregate it, and deposit it into the brook.
So we’ve really fundamentally altered the watershed from one that used to be a place where rain fell, absorbed into the ground, and then fed the stream from groundwater base flow — and that would take days and days — and then have it flow downstream slowly, to something that fills within a matter of 15 minutes to an hour of a rainstorm, and then rapidly moves downstream and empties into the Apponagansett River and Padanaram Harbor. So huge changes in the development, and just a way of thinking about water and stormwater as a waste product versus a resource.
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NBL: What is the testing along the course of the brook and its tributaries showing so far?
DG: When we first started this or before we started this, there were just a lot of anecdotal thoughts about what was ruining Apponagansett Bay and what was ruining Padanaram Harbor, what was causing these drops in water quality over time. A lot of that had to do with Buttonwood Pond or the zoo or other things, but what we’re really finding now [through water sampling] is that the pollution is fairly widely distributed up and down the whole brook.
We’re seeing pollution come in right off the bat up at Hidden Brook Apartments and at essentially every major street intersection, which is where we’re mostly testing. We’re seeing spikes in inputs of bacteria and nitrogen and phosphorus all the way up and down the entire run. So it’s widely distributed, and some of those pollutants are coming in via the surface runoff from all the streets because everything drains to the brook, and some of it is coming in via groundwater, because of widely distributed households that are still on septic [systems].
NBL: If the brook was a healthy ecosystem, what creatures would you expect to see that are absent now?
DG: I would expect that if we were to restore the ecosystem, and restore connectivity by removing dams and replacing culverts, that we would see first an increase in a lot of amphibian life as the water quality improves: salamanders and frogs. And then we’d also start to see an increase almost immediately in American eels, which are endemic to this area but have a hard time moving up and down the brook and surviving because of the disjointed ecosystem and the water quality. …
When you dive down and you look at the bottom [of upper Apponagansett Bay], it’s sort of like a desert. It’s silty, sedimented, there’s no eelgrass, and not a lot of other aquatic life down there. There’s almost no remaining oyster bed — even the quahog population is suffering in there because of the low oxygen levels. So the first thing that we need to get back in there is eelgrass. Once the water quality gets to a point where eelgrass can repopulate — and it will, there’s so much eelgrass seed moving around Buzzards Bay and flushing in and out — if the water quality was there, the eelgrass would reestablish.
[Eelgrass is key to a healthy bay. It cleans the water, provides habitat for fish and shellfish, absorbs carbon, produces oxygen, and buffers the impact of storms on the coastline.]
NBL: What are some strategies that can be used to mitigate the pollution and improve the water-handling capacity of Buttonwood Brook?
DG: Green infrastructure, nature-based solutions are really the primary strategies that we’re using. Green infrastructure includes ways that will help infiltrate more of that water back into the ground so that it can be filtered and return to the brook via baseflow, biofiltration strategies like tree filters and swales that will help filter out some of the sediments in areas where you cannot put water back into the ground. … Nature-based solutions [include] restoration of wetlands, restoration of stream channels [by removing concrete channels] and flood plain … [and] reforestation strategies that also slow water down.
All of these green infrastructure and nature-based solution strategies have co-benefits to the community. They help to mitigate the increased temperatures in the summer, they do a lot of humidity regulation, they beautify blighted areas, and also function to improve air quality.
NBL: What inspires you to do this work, and is hometown pride an element of it?
DG: Yeah, so what inspires me to do this work — that’s a great question. I would say first and foremost, as a lifelong surfer and paddler, I have a real deep connection to the ocean and the environment, and I’m a big believer in the notion that we rely on the environment as much as it relies on us.
Secondly, I think the other people that are doing this work have really inspired me to jump in and try to make a difference. People like Desa [van Laarhoven] from Round the Bend Farm, Maura [Valdez] from Groundwork Southcoast, and all my colleagues here at Buzzards Bay Coalition who work really hard every day have been a big inspiration to me to get into this field and to continue to do the work.
And then lastly, I’d say there’s a big sense of community here in New Bedford. I was born and raised here, I was gone for a long time, came back, and just really want to do some work to give back to the community. And I think New Bedford and Dartmouth deserve to have beaches and brooks and rivers that are clean, usable places that provide a space for recreation, provide a space for wildlife, and provide a space to engage in some of the activities that have gone on here for hundreds of years, like shellfishing, that are part of the culture for this area. So those are my big motivators for doing this work.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Much more information about the Buttonwood Brook-Apponagansett Bay Restoration Project can be found at www.savebuzzardsbay.org.
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