George Chapman, a resident of East Falmouth, responded to my request for questions about wastewater issues. He brings up the cost of sewering, deemed by many as the greatest unfunded state mandate in history. How can residents get involved to make sure their tax dollars (and betterment fees) are being spent wisely?
I have lived in Falmouth for over twenty five years. Our streams, ponds, and shorelines are tanking while we talk this issue to death. Please simplify the process for me. Who in town is ultimately responsible? What board or managerial position must get this done? Who must decide what to do, when to do it, and when can we be given a timeline against which we can measure their progress?
- George A. Chapman, Sady’s Lane, East Falmouth
George brings up an interesting point, which perhaps only reporters covering wastewater issues have any clue about: who is responsible for this mess? Let’s start with the beginning.
For the last 100 years, residents of Cape Cod have been flushing their toilets and not thinking twice about where the effluent goes. But as our population density increases, our waste is having a big impact on the beaches, shellfish beds, and marinas we hold so dear.
The majority of residents have septic tanks that collect and process wastewater (the contents of your toilet bowl, the kitchen sink, and the washing machine) based on a simple concept: given enough air and nutrients, bacteria will break down all the toxic stuff, and the tank will only have to be pumped out every few years. However, a seeminly benign nutrient–nitrogen, the basis for protein–tends to seep out of septic tanks, entering the groundwater, and eventually flowing to a coastal pond near you. Other sources of nitrogen in estuaries come from fertilizer and road runoff, and to some extent, animal poop.
Trouble in Paradise
The large concentrations of nitrogen that our waterways contain now are enough to trigger algal blooms, especially in hot summer weather. As the algae eventually dies off, it releases a noxious odor that some residents may be familiar with. Not fun to swim in! But for the ecosystem, it is even worse. The algae blocks sunlight from reaching the eel grass, which used to grow in thick mats along the shoreline of nearly every harbor. Eel grass provides essential habitat for shellfish, which adhere to its blades as babies, and juvenile finfish, which hide out and find food in the swaying green forest. If the algae situation gets really bad, it can rob the water of the dissolved oxygen fish need to survive. In extreme situations, fish kills can occur.
To combat this growing ecological catastrophe, provisions under the federal Clean Water Act set up a mandate for removing nitrogen from coastal ecosystems. The Massachusetts Estuary Project (MEP) was set up to study every coastal pond in the state to determine the level of degradation caused by nitrogen– and the Total Maximum Daily Limit (TMDL) that the waterway can handle while still supporting marine life. The TMDL’s vary according to each coastal pond, but generally, in Falmouth, the waterways south of Route 28 in East Falmouth have the most stringent limits; in West and North Falmouth, the recommended TMDL is about half of the current nitrogen output. The reason is simple: more people = more nitrogen.
The Big Pipe Solution
Currently, only 3% of Falmouth is served by a sewer: parts of Woods Hole, downtown Falmouth, Falmouth Hospital, and Falmouth High School. The main proposal on the table for removing nitrogen (and other nutrients) from our waste stream is to install sewer lines connecting homes to the existing wastewater treatment facility on Blacksmith Shop Road. The first phase of this proposal targets the neighborhoods south of Route 28, at an estimated initial cost of $250 million. What to do with the wastewater once it is treated is still up for debate.
To answer George’s question, there are several people in charge of figuring out the thorny, expensive details. The main go-to guy is Jerry Potamis, the town’s Wastewater Superintendent. He is in charge of drafting the town’s Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan and making sure that the town’s wastewater complies with DEP standards. I wouldn’t want to have his job!
In addition to Jerry, a number of citizens and town officials sit on the Nutrient Management Working Group, which has been working for years to incorporate environmental, public health, and finance considerations into the CWMP. The working group’s mission has just about ended, however, as selectmen have decided to create a formal town committee with a clear mandate and televised meetings to involve more residents in the debate. That committee is tentatively named the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, and will work with a facilitator hired by the town to gather public input on townwide sewering.
To answer one of your questions, George, the person who is ultimately responsible for the project is the Royal “You.” Residents who are concerned about how sewering will impact their tax bill– or how not addressing the problem will impact the environment– are encouraged to volunteer for the advisory committee. While there is a limit on how many members can serve, residents can also get informed by hosting a “sewer social” with members of FACES and the Coastal Pond Management Committee. If you would simply like to voice your concerns, you may get in touch with Town Manager Bob Whritenour or one of your selectmen.
The timeline for the biggest public works project this town has ever seen is a long one, estimated at about 20 years, once we finally get a CWMP approved by both residents and state authorities. As you can imagine, how to fund this project– at approximately $600 million, all told– will not be easy, and money in the state’s revolving fund for low-interest loans is dwindling. Citizens are doing the right thing by demanding that the sewering be done right the first time, with serious public input. But the time to get started was yesterday.