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Landmark Regional Wastewater Deal Hits Snags with a Looming Deadline

The break down of Dennis' sewer plan. The town hopes to start to address nitrogen pollution in the southern part of Dennis.
Dennis Harwich Yarmouth Clean Waters Community Partnership
A look at Dennis' wastewater plans. Yarmouth and Harwich are working with the town to build a regional treatment plant in Dennis, but plans have been delayed.

A multi-town agreement heralded as a landmark deal to address regional wastewater issues on Cape Cod may be in jeopardy.

Dennis, Harwich, and Yarmouth have been working since 2017 to create the DHY Clean Water Community Partnership, but the agreement has stalled, raising questions whether it will come to fruition.

Yarmouth recently sent a letter to both towns, asking that the formalization of the agreement be placed on the warrants for the fall town meeting in all three towns. And Yarmouth wants that Town Meeting commitment to made by the end of June.

Select boards in Harwich and Dennis both reviewed the letter at meetings this week, but have yet to commit to the fall town meeting deadline.

The tri-town agreement was supposed to go all three town meetings in 2020, and a second attempt to get an article on the May Town Meeting warrants in all three towns failed.

The plan to create that partnership was approved by state lawmakers and signed by the governor in 2019.

The towns are proposing to build one, large sewage treatment plant in Dennis, that all three towns could connect to with sewer pipes.

The plan has been estimated to save all three towns a combined $180 million dollars over the lifespan of the project. That's because Harwich, Dennis and Yarmouth wouldn't have to build and operate three separate treatment plants.

The plan was originally delayed by the pandemic, but some issues have been brought up since. And officials in Dennis and Harwich are worried voters haven’t been educated well enough and may balk at spending millions to build a plant shared by 2 other towns.

In Harwich, part of the problem has to do with another, different sewer project that didn’t turn out as originally presented.

A plan to connect about 600 homes to the sewer system in Chatham – under a different partnership – came in about 4 million dollars more than expected. That’s caused some town officials to start raising questions about the town's wastewater plans in general, and that includes this tri-town agreement.

Water superintendent Dan Pelletier says it can be hard to pinpoint costs. The Dennis plant could eventually treat over 6 million gallons of wastewater a day, and he says it's hard to find existing plants of that size to compare to.

Dennis is in a similar situation. Select board members say they need time to educate the public.

Water commissioners in Dennis have publicly raised fears about discharged water from the plant contaminating the town’s drinking supply. Also, members of the town’s finance committee have also questioned the makeup of a board that would govern the regional plant.

And Yarmouth needs to move on the project soon.

The state is planning road improvements this fall on Route 28. The town wants to be able to present sewer plans to the state, before that work is done, to incorporate pipes into the project.

But to do that, Yarmouth officials need to know where those pipes are going.

The town does have a back-up plan to build their own sewage treatment plant on Buck Island Road. And select board chairman Mark Forest says Yarmouth is ready to go, if Dennis and Harwich don’t move forward with this regional agreement.

Forest says federal grants are at stake as well. President Joe Biden’s trillion dollar infrastructure plan could include funding for local wastewater projects, and Forest is concerned that if Cape towns keep pushing these wastewater projects back, they could lose out on that funding.

There’s also concern that the longer Cape towns wait, the worse shape their estuaries will get. And a Boston-based environmental group – the Conservation Law Foundation – has already threatened some towns with lawsuits for not acting quickly enough with wastewater plans.

Officials in Dennis and Harwich still do recognize the benefits of the tri-town agreement.

Dennis select board chairman Chris Flanigan is pushing to have an article for the fall – whether it’s for their own wastewater treatment plant in Dennis, or a commitment to the regional agreement.

The Harwich select board have pledged to have detailed, public discussions about the town's plan this summer. The most recent will detail the placement of sewer pumps in town later this month. But they will also likely discuss possible alternatives to the the DHY partnership.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.