A week after a day-long symposium on the potential for outfall pipes to handle the Cape’s wastewater problem, I’ve finally figured out what’s been bothering me.
It seems that wastewater managers and engineers, in their infinite wisdom, operate according to the “if it can be complicated, why make it simple?” ethic.
The speakers at the ocean outfall forum did not mince words: it would take no less than an amendment to three state acts protecting marine resources—not to mention, years of study and millions of dollars— for an outfall pipe to be constructed on these shores.
They were less candid about the probable impacts on the environment— and were subtle about the whole reason for entertaining the idea of an ocean outfall: it’s cheaper than the only other “approved” method of disposing of wastewater.
Having attended my fair share of conferences, symposia, summits, and forums on wastewater, it seems that there are two distinct schools of thought on the issue. Some play by the rules, insisting there is no way to serve an entire municipality with anything other than sewers and wastewater treatment plants. Others push for “alternatives” such as composting toilets and shellfish aquaculture— options that seem outside the box until you realize that’s the way humans have been disposing of their “waste” for millenia.
An important difference between these two schools of thought is the attention and resources given to the “big pipe” option, while grassroots groups are left to their own devices to promote eco-toilets or aquaculture. Kudos to the Falmouth wastewater committee (CWMP-RC for short!) for opening their minds and supporting a successful town meeting article to give sewering alternatives adequate study— while the taxpayer-funded report by the engineering firm Stearns & Wheler did not.
Popular in places where sanitation services are lacking, outfall pipes have fallen out of favor around the globe. Speaking on “possible environmental impacts,” Batelle scientist Carlton Hunt pointed out that the effects of putting semi-treated wastewater into our precious ocean are pretty much unknown.
Think about what products you use in the shower, the kitchen, the laundry room. Would you want to swim in it or eat it later on the half shell? What about road runoff that flows into storm drains?
Dr. Hunt also pointed out the anti-microbial nanotechnology that is appearing in everything from hand sanitizers to socks. David Dow, of the Cape & Islands Sierra Club chapter, pointed out that the byproducts of pharmaceuticals and personal care products are known to cause reproductive problems in fresh-water fish and amphibians. Studies have shown these contaminants of emerging concern in most of the country’s drinking water supply. What will they do in the ocean? We simply don’t know.
We also don’t really know what pumping precious drinking water into our toilets and sinks, and back across town for treatment will do to the water table— or to our municipal energy bills. We may not be water-poor on Cape Cod, but as the Dr. Hunt pointed out, we don’t know what to expect with climate change. Is it wise to build energy-intensive infrastructure in this age of sea level rise and uncertain weather patterns? How many more wind turbines will we need to handle the additional energy demand? (and how will nearby residents feel about that?!)
A truly holistic approach
There are essentially two reasons for considering an ocean outfall: the wastewater need not be treated to a point where it’s basically drinkable (through reverse osmosis)and town-owned land resources for groundwater discharge are dwindling. Finding a suitable discharge site is complicated by the need to avoid putting nutrients back into the ground, which would require sewering the discharge area.
All these problems add up to one thing: groundwater discharge will be expensive.
One of the main messages from the panelists is that we need a “holistic approach” to solving our wastewater problem.
For hydrologists, that means recharging the treated wastewater into the groundwater or for irrigation. For Paul Niedzwiecki, director of the Cape Cod Commission, “holistic” means we need to collaborate as a region, rather than as individual towns. For Nate Weeks, of Stearns & Wheler-GHD, the term means we need to consider all the big-pipe options, no matter the regulatory obstacle course. For residents advocating for eco-toilets, aquaculture, and inlet widening, the answer lies in using our unused nutrients as compost and fish food, removing the “waste” from the wastewater equation.
It could be that being truly holistic means trying all these approaches, but in the end, decisions will have to be made. Why not make it simple, if we can avoid the complications?
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.