Now Is The Time To Clean Up Falmouth's Coastal Ponds

 (Presentation at Falmouth’s Town Meeting in support of the Water Quality Management Committee’s recommended Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan)

By now we all know excessive nitrogen is the largest single contributor to the decline of our coastal ponds.

The Little Pond sewer project will eliminate most of the nitrogen from wastewater currently going into Little Pond, the town’s most degraded estuary, from the homes and businesses surrounding the pond.

The Bournes Pond inlet widening project will widen the existing channel from 50 to 90 feet, increasing tidal exchange and removing quantities of nitrogen from Bournes Pond equivalent to sewering approximately 400 homes. It also includes a new bridge, longer but no higher, with a fishing platform on the pond side, handicap access and sidewalks.

Treatment plant upgrades are required by the town’s settlement agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Buzzards Bay Coalition, and will allow for improvements in the quality of the treated discharge.

The Woods Hole infiltration/inflow project, also required by the settlement agreement, will significantly reduce saltwater and groundwater intrusion into the current sewer system.

These are four different projects, but they are all part of a package, the town’s Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan.

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These water quality projects are different from most things this town spends money on. It’s not for salaries, or utilities, or studies, or snowplowing, or vehicles or roofs or pensions or pavement. This article is to build and maintain permanent infrastructure. A century from now and more, the projects you vote for tonight will still be serving our town’s needs.

Why are we doing this? We have all seen the warning signs in our estuaries in recent years—fish kills, the disappearance of the herring, the decline of the shellfisheries, oxygen depletion, algae blooms.

The Massachusetts Estuaries Project studies by University of Massachusetts Dartmouth evaluated all 15 of our coastal estuaries, from Waquoit Bay to Rands Canal. We have more coastal estuaries than any other town in Massachusetts, and every one was found to be impaired from nitrogen overload.

The first proposed solution to address this problem was the Department of Environmental Protection’s predictable, one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf answer to nitrogen reduction—a $600 million proposal to sewer all the southern peninsulas, from Falmouth Heights to Seacoast Shores, and then sewer north of Route 28 through East Falmouth as well.

The town’s rejection of that plan in 2009 led to the formation of a review committee, and now the Water Quality Management Committee. This committee has followed the direction of Town Meeting, to pursue parallel paths— proceeding with sewering as little as possible and only where absolutely necessary, and implementing demonstration projects of the most promising alternatives to sewering.

Town Meeting gave us that direction, you appropriated $2.77 million to carry it out, and the voters, at the ballot box, by a 2-1 margin, in every precinct, supported your decision.

As we moved ahead, we got pushback from two directions. The regulators at DEP never gave up on the $600 million plan, and kept insisting Falmouth had to commit to a plan, a schedule, and a funding commitment to sewer every southern estuary. On the other side were people who believed passionately in their own favorite wished-for solution—eco-toilets, or shellfish, or whatever—and opposed any sewering, anywhere, ever.

The plan that the town adopted, that you adopted, at Town Meeting last year by unanimous vote, includes the best elements of both.

It calls for sewering around only one estuary, Little Pond, our most heavily degraded estuary, in the most densely populated part of town, where most houses are still on cesspools, on 5,000-square-foot lots or less.

Some of you will remember this area was supposed to be sewered 30 years ago, when it would have cost $3.5 million. But the town back then listened to those who said, “Let’s wait.” This time, let’s not wait.

The rest of the plan is to pursue non-sewering alternatives—inlet widening at Bournes Pond, planting and monitoring two million oysters in Little Pond and elsewhere; picking a site for a permeable reactive barrier  demonstration; enforcing the town’s nitrogen reduction bylaw, the toughest nitrogen reduction bylaw on the books anywhere in Massachusetts; and pursuing the most significant eco-toilet demonstration project anywhere in the country.

Now, our town’s plan is being hailed as a groundbreaking model, a template for all of Cape Cod and every other coastal community in Massachusetts. The Cape Cod Commission sees it as a model to follow for the 208 regional plan it is now preparing. The work this town has begun on the alternative demonstration projects is recognized by EPA as cutting-edge science that will show the whole nation how to deal with nutrients in estuaries.

This is our town’s plan, your plan. But now is the point where we need to put our money where our mouth is, and vote to implement our plan. We know it is a lot of money; building permanent infrastructure is expensive.

But there is no cheaper plan that will somehow, miraculously, show up in the next three years and eliminate the need for any sewering. We all hope that oysters, eco-toilets, permeable reactive barriers, inlet widening, and other alternatives will prove their worth, and can be part of the solution for many of our estuaries. But anyone who says these alternatives will be the whole solution, and no sewering will be needed anywhere, is deluding themselves, and misleading you.

There is no better deal out there for the residents and businesses being served by the sewer. Thanks to this Town Meeting, and our legislative delegation, the governor last month signed into law special legislation allowing Falmouth to charge zero percent interest on betterments, to allow for equal payments like a mortgage, and to spread the payments out over 30 years.

If the board of selectmen three years from now utilizes these provisions, and the betterment rate is 70 percent, it will cost the homeowner roughly $600 a year in betterment charges, less than what they would pay for a cellphone contract, or cable TV service, or home delivery of The Boston Globe.

And in return they will never again have to pay for a pump out, never have to replace their septic system, and they can add bedrooms or a garage where they couldn’t before, increasing substantially to the value of their homes.

And there are many ways we’ve found to ease the burden on senior citizens, from deferral to tax credits to circuit breakers to low interest loans.

There is no better time than this year, when prudent fiscal planning has brought us to this “window of opportunity,” where the town can undertake these two huge infrastructure projects, for clean drinking water and cleaner estuaries, and pay for them both without raising the tax rate.

Also helping make this plan affordable is the zero percent state revolving fund loan we anticipate receiving, thanks to the flow neutral bylaw you passed last November. (The difference between a zero percent loan and a 2 percent loan starts at $1 million a year savings to the town.)

Some people ask, what happens if we don’t do it now? Here’s what happens.

First, the “window of opportunity” to borrow and build these projects without raising the tax rate will close. I know how to win elections, and I know how to lose elections, and one good way to lose an election is to ask people to vote for $49 million in infrastructure projects and tell them they will have to raise their taxes to pay for it all.

Second, construction costs will go up, state aid will go down, and regulatory requirements will become more onerous and more expensive. We’ve seen over and over again, time is not our friend when we delay these major infrastructure projects.

Finally, people ask, do you have a “Plan B” if this package goes down? We don’t have a Plan B, but the Department of Environmental Protection does, and we know what it is, because they’ve told us.

It is to mandate what the town said “no” to in 2009, an enforceable commitment from the town to sewer every home and business from Falmouth Heights to Seacoast Shores, and to tell them how soon we are going to do it.

They clearly aren’t counting on alternatives, and they certainly don’t care what it costs the taxpayers. They have the legal authority to make this demand. They have reluctantly backed off because Falmouth persuaded them that we had a practical plan that would work. But if Falmouth’s plan goes down, their plan will be back on the table.

(Eric Turkington is chairman of the Water Quality Management Committee. He is a former Falmouth selectman and state representative.)

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