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Cape Towns Take On Wastewater at Town Meetings as Lawsuits, Environmental Damage Loom Large

The blue-green algae is called cyanobacteria. It can release toxins that affect the liver and nervous system.
Greg Allen/NPR
Blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, can produce dangerous toxins and have been growing in ponds across the Cape. It's fueled in large part by nutrients that seep out of septic systems.

Kathryn: Town meeting voters across the Cape are being asked to make some major decisions about how to manage wastewater from septic systems, which pollutes local waterways and has been a multibillion dollar problem for more than a decade. CAI’s Eve Zuckoff has been reporting on how towns have made strides towards revolutionizing their wastewater treatment and joins us now to talk about it. Hi Eve.

Eve: Hi Kathryn! Good to be back.

Kathryn: So we’ve got a number of towns with wastewater articles on the warrant this town meeting season. First, we’ve got to talk about what happened in Mashpee, where this week residents approved a $54 million project to build a sewage treatment plant and sewer collection system. This is big. This is possibly the largest funding proposal ever approved by town meeting in Mashpee for wastewater efforts. So, what will this money actually build?

Eve: So town voters unanimously approved $54 million dollars to build a wastewater treatment plant by the transfer station, and this is for the first phase of a plan to get the water cleaner and rebuild habitats lost to nitrogen pollution in the Popponesett Bay Watershed—a popular residential, beach and boating area.

Now, the plant will be mostly underground, so you probably won’t see it, or a sewer main will also be constructed. As a reminder, the $54 million just covers the first phase of this project, and there will be 5 phases in total. But the good thing is this phase won’t require an increase in property taxes for residents because it’s being financed through a combination of zero-interest financing from the state, a short term rental tax, and $13 million in funding from the Cape and Islands Water Protection Trust. It’s not quite a done deal yet; voters need to give a final OK to fund the project at Saturday's town election, but it’s a really popular project.

Kathryn: And I understand Bourne and Sandwich also made some big wastewater decisions at town meeting.

Eve: Right. In Bourne there was some disagreement over this, but town meeting voters gave permission to the Board of Selectmen to look into paying for a joint sewer plan with Wareham. The towns working on a sewer agreement together. And right now, Bourne can’t get any money from the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund to go toward this large wastewater expense because Wareham is over the bridge, but taking on wastewater will be an even bigger expense if the collaboration with the off-cape town fails and Bourne has to go it alone.

Now, in Sandwich, town meeting voters to allocate about $1 million from a special water infrastructure investment fund to begin designing a sewage treatment plant, mapping layouts for 20,000 feet of sewer pipe and creating environmentally responsible disposal and drainage systems.

On Saturday, Dennis voters will go to town meeting to decide whether to approve more than half a million dollars for the first phase of a wastewater project.

Kathryn: These are examples of how some Cape towns are really starting to make headway on wastewater after a lot of talk about needing to do this—and pressure in the form of lawsuits—to stop wastewater pollution over the years.

Eve: Yeah, at the core, this this a water quality story. You know, wastewater, largely from septic systems, contains these nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that act travel through the groundwater and like fertilizer for harmful algae and other plant growth in ponds, rivers and bays. And that excess vegetation robs the water of oxygen, which kills fish and marine life. So the result is just dead, stinky water bodies that are no good for fish, fishing, swimming, you name it.

So, it’s also a money story. If these ponds, bays and rivers are polluted, this can affect home values and even the tourist industry. So there’s lost revenue there.

And, the money ties in with several lawsuits aimed at forcing the Cape to take on this issue over the years. We’ve seen the Boston-based environmental advocacy group conservation law foundation put a big target on the backs of Mashpee and Barnstable just last year over septic pollution. That’s scary to the towns because CLF has filed lawsuits over water quality and wastewater issues on the Cape before—over a decade ago. And that lawsuit was against the federal government, but the risk to the Cape was that the federal government would force towns to start sewering—which wouldn’t allow towns any real local control over the project and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

So Cape officials responded and fended off those lawsuits with a major overhaul in how the region manages wastewater planning. But the costs to do this work are still astronomical—and towns have struggled to find ways to pay for it in ways that voters will approve of.

Kathryn: That bring us back to now—town meeting season—where, as we talked about, voters are considering warrant articles with price tags attached, to address the need for sewering and other ways to cut down on nitrogen pollution. Have towns started to crack the nut, if you will, of how to present plans—and price tags—that are palatable to voters?

Eve: Perhaps. Mashpee selectboard member Andrew Gottlieb seems to think they have, at least for this first phase of work in Mashpee. He said the newer funding streams provided by the short-term rental tax and the Water Protection Fund, coupled with a zero-interest loan and a grant made it so the town didn’t have to raise property taxes, and that’s big.

But grants and zero-interest loans may not always be available, and most towns need to have multi-phase, multi-year plans —we’re talking 20, even 50 year plans — to fully tackle the wastewater problem.

For example: Orleans really struggled to get taxpayer support — they had epic fails at town meeting — but finally broke ground on a nearly $60M treatment plant and sewer project that literally took years to get passed and combines a state loan with some funding approved by town meeting.

So, ultimately, the nature of the Cape means each town needs to come up with a different approach with different ways of funding those approaches because a lot of this water that we’re talking about runs across town lines, so there’s no one size fits all. And we’re far from reaching the solution; the problem of wastewater pollution is so big and, frankly, sewering resolves part of the issue — there are other approaches, too — but the price tag and balancing act for all of this will always be high.

Kathryn: So, progress—slow progress—but progress nonetheless on the waste water issue across the Cape. Eve, thanks for this look at what’s going on. That’s CAI’s Eve Zuckoff.

Eve: Thanks for having me, Kathryn.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.