The State has been empowered by the Federal Clean Waters Act* to set TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for each waterbody. This standard determines how much nitrogen that waterbody may receive on a daily basis in order to maintain or improve the water quality. The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has contracted with SMAST to utilize the Massachusetts Estuaries Project to establish the TMDLs. Once a TMDL has been set for a waterbody, the individual towns are responsible for establishing a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan to limit the nitrogen load. The State and Federal Government approve that Plan prior to implementation. *NOTE: There is some question as to whether the Federal Clean Water Act applies to non-point source pollution (that from septic systems) or is limited to point-source pollution. The Federal EPA and Mass DEP have taken the position that it applies to non-point source as well as point-source pollution. Orleans’ Consulting Attorney, Michael Ford, has opined that this question has been challenged in court in other parts of the country and courts have ruled on both sides. To date it has not been pursued at the Supreme Court level to resolve the question. The Conservation Law Foundation has shown some interest in pursuing a case in order to answer this question.
Where does the excess nitrogen in our waters come from?
Nitrogen comes from many sources: birds, mammals and other wildlife, stormwater runoff, fertilizers, rainfall, regeneration of nutrients from soils on pond bottoms (benthic regeneration), decomposition of material in ponds. But the largest controllable source is our septic systems. We have no control over factories in the Midwest that burn fossil fuels which put nitrogen in the air which later rain down on our waterways with high levels of nitrogen. But we can control nitrogen from septics (70%) and from stormwater runoff and fertilizers (30%).
What are the costs and benefits of a centralized versus decentralized system?
Orleans wastewater plan calls for a centralized system; could smaller decentralized systems work as well? Both centralized and decentralized systems can perform well. In general, the larger the system, the better the performance (more nitrogen removed at consistent levels over time). So the higher the performance, the fewer the properties need to be sewered in order to meet the TMDLs. But many mid-sized decentralized systems have been found to perform very well; some meeting nitrogen removal levels of centralized systems. In watersheds where TMDLs show we need to remove ALL septic nitrogen, a decentralized system will not reach compliance because all wastewater must be removed from the watershed. The watershed area to Meetinghouse Pond is one area in town where all septic nitrogen must be removed. In areas where the waters are less impaired, decentralized systems could be used. The primary issue is one of cost. In looking at the cost of implementing our Wastewater Plan, we must consider
transport and treatment of the wastewater and disposal of the highly treated effluent to meet the TMDLs (sewering approximately 53% of our properties). We must also rebuild the Tri-Town Plant to continue to handle septage from the properties remaining on septic systems and to handle the sludge of any decentralized systems. And finally, we need to include costs for land acquisition and permitting. A centralized system provides lower treatment facility costs and effluent disposal costs than decentralized systems (especially in the case of Tri-Town where the town already owns the land and it has been previously permitted for septage treatment). But the costs of transport (“pipe in the ground”) are higher than decentralized systems. Our Wastewater Plan could be implemented with decentralized plants but it would require 11 sites – 4 for treatment, 11 for effluent disposal – located throughout town with significant land acquisition and permitting costs. We believe the centralized system provides the lower cost solution but urge our Board of Selectmen to further investigate this question to resolve this debate. A true “apples to apples” comparison is needed.
Why are there so many questions about sewer systems? Didn’t we investigate this question and vote to proceed?
It’s the nature of the process. Wastewater remediation is a complex issue with multiple approaches to solve the problem. Some folks feel we can fix our waters only by sewering the entire town. Others believe we should be able to come up with our own methodologies for determining how much nitrogen we want to remove. Some favor Big Plants; others prefer smaller plants located at multiple locations around all areas of town. And some don’t want to spend the money to sewer anything. Democracy is messy. Listening and learning and trying to reach consensus and resolve issues will help us get the job done. But we also need to recognize that not all aspects of this planning process are democratic. The State has made it clear they will not entertain other methodologies for determining TMDLs. Aside from the time and cost involved in having to peer review and validate alternate methodologies, they are in the position of having to coordinate wastewater plans of multiple towns that share the same waterbody. It would be impossible to do that utilizing one methodology from Orleans, another from Eastham, a third from Brewster, a fourth from Harwich. Getting everyone to agree on any one scientific methodology is near impossible. There are still folks out there who do not believe there is any such thing as global warming and sea level rise. And folks who do not believe that septic nitrogen is harming our estuaries. No amount of discussion is apt to change their minds; regulatory authority will most likely be needed should a majority not reach consensus.
If we install a wastewater treatment system, how soon could we expect to see the benefits?
Nitrogen travels out of our septic system leaching fields into the groundwater which travels at about a foot a day. So any sewered properties within 365 feet of a water body (picture the downtown areas along Town Cove) would stop contributing nitrogen from septics within a year. Within 5 years, any sewered downtown properties within 1800 feet would no longer be contributing nitrogen to Town Cove. A significant improvement would be seen to that water body very quickly. Other areas might take 10-15 years to improve significantly if those properties selected for sewering were further from the water body. Why take the further away properties? Cost. It is much less expensive to sewer properties with high wastewater flows (condos, apartments, year round homes) that are closer to the treatment plant than low flows
further away. And, near or far, nitrogen is nitrogen. We may as well get the most bang for our buck.
If we use the Tri-Town site and release treated wastewater into the ground in the Namskaket watershed, what would be the effects on Namskaket marsh and on neighbors in that area?
Three main concerns have been expressed over effects on the Namskaket Marsh area if the Tri-Town site is used for a wastewater plant: nutrient loading, shellfish and beach contamination (bacteria), and water table levels. Nutrient loading (too much nitrogen) is a problem in estuaries. Large bodies of water such as Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean can receive large levels of nutrients without impairment due to dilution and marshes have been found to be able to absorb huge levels of nutrients due to vegetation and natural attenuation. The existing Tri-Town “Plume” was expected to surface in Namskaket Marsh but so far has had only small amounts of groundwater come into the marsh. The majority of it has gone far offshore in Cape Cod Bay. (Picture a hand with the thumb coming up in Namskaket Marsh and the hand and four fingers out in Cape Cod Bay.) In regard to bacterial pollution, our sandy soils do an excellent job of “cleaning” bacteria from effluent disposed on land but at Tri-Town all effluent is treated with ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses prior to it being discharged into the ground. (A much higher level of treatment than effluent coming from septic systems.) Finally, extensive testing of loading water onto the Tri-Town site showed no increase in water table levels for more than a few feet around the disposal site. While the amount of water planned to be processed and discharged at Tri-Town sounds enormous (160 million gallons if at some point the entire town were sewered), it must be noted that that represents less than the difference in rainfall between a wet year and a dry year. It would have no impact on either the Pleasant Bay Watershed or on Cape Cod Bay. But we’re delighted that the Tri-Town Board of Managers have approved funding continuation of the studies by USGS to make sure we have additional and accurate data on that site.
Has the new cut in the outer beach made enough of a difference in the flushing of Pleasant Bay to clean up its waters? If there is a difference, will it always be there? And, can we use dredging to solve any of the water quality problems?
The 2007 Inlet has made an enormous difference in Pleasant Bay in some areas. Little Pleasant Bay has made a remarkable improvement including new and healthier beds of eelgrass. Improvement has also been seen in Pah Wah Pond, most likely as a result of its proximity to Little Pleasant Bay. The “Big Bay” area has not seen as much improvement. Quanset Pond is experiencing sea lettuce for the first time and the west coast of the Bay is murky with increased macro-algaes.
The terminal ponds (Meetinghouse, Lonnie’s, Arey’s) do not appear improved and Lonnie’s pond had a “bloom” of a reddish brown latex-like algal substance which covered almost a third of the pond for 3-5 days last summer. If the Inlet stays open and, especially, if it becomes the primary inlet for Pleasant Bay as it is expected to, some additional improvement will be seen, particularly in Big Bay. But it is very unlikely the terminal ponds will improve much as a result of the inlet. And, over the next 20-50 years, this inlet will begin to move south on a 150 year cycle that will leave many years before a return to good flushing.
Dredging can help on a temporary basis and should be explored as a means of assisting the effort to clean up the waters. But dredging will not have a long lasting effect on water quality. We must address the source of nitrogen and reduce the amount of septic nitrogen entering the Pleasant Bay system. Sewering the majority of this system is not scheduled to occur for another 12-15 years and after implementation will take another 10-15 years to take full effect. So the breach would appear to have bought us the time needed to implement our Plan in time to save Pleasant Bay for our children and grandchildren.
The former Wastewater Validation Committee asked the MA Department of Environmental Protection for a response to questions they had developed in the course of their analysis. Has the Town released the DEP’s October 2009 repsonse? What was DEP’s overall recommendations?
DEP’s response has been received and is posted on the town’s website under the Validation Committee’s page. DEP stands behind the Mass Estuaries Project for determining nitrogen loading and setting TMDLs. Brian Dudley or Mass DEP recently spent three hours reviewing the former Validation Committee’s findings on Rock Harbor and found their results to be “overly simplistic and without taking into consideration the complexities of the system”.
Has the town considered a regional approach to solving the wastewater problem? Has anything come of the “Cape-wide Approach” to taking care of our waterways?
Both Brewster and Eastham have expressed interest in exploring possible regional approaches to wastewater remediation and Orleans Wastewater Plan provides the flexibility to team with other towns in the future.
What happens if the town voters decide not to fund the wastewater plan?
Our waters will continue to deteriorate which will most likely result in loss of property values and further deterioration of our town’s economy. In terms of regulatory action, frankly, no one knows for sure. The State could take enforcement actions against the town. The CLF or any group of citizens could initiate a law suit against the State for not taking action or the town for not cleaning up our pollution. If we move forward but wish to put one or more phases of the Plan on temporary hold, the State has indicated they are more than willing to work with the town to proceed in good faith given the current economic difficulties.
At the OPC Forum “Ask the Experts” in October, what actions did the experts recommend to the Town?
There was general concensus from virtually all experts, including the Woods Hole Group which conducted the Peer Review, that the MEP provided a satisfactory basis for a wastewater plan and that while some refinement might be necessary, there was adequate flexibility in the Plan to move forward at this time.