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State proposal to Cape Cod towns: Get watershed permits or homeowners may face costly septic upgrades

Charles Culbertson
Santuit Pond in Mashpee, taken August 21, 2019. The pond has experienced significant impacts from blue-green algae blooms that can pose serious public health risks.

State environmental officials are considering new changes to septic system regulations that could force thousands of Cape residents to install expensive wastewater technology in their backyards if towns fail to receive a new permit.

The proposed regulations are part of an effort to clean up local bays and estuaries that have long been polluted by excessive nitrogen from home septic systems.

Officials with Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have been presenting the proposal to Cape Cod select boards and town officials, while taking feedback on the proposal.

The reaction has been mixed. Some say the new rules would help expensive sewer projects gain more traction politically, while others worry the permitting could lead to redundancy and unnecessary expenses for towns already moving forward with sewer projects.

The watershed permit

Massachusetts environmental officials want to end nitrogen pollution that for years has inundated local estuaries. The pollution comes mostly from backyard septic systems.

Nitrogen from wastewater leaks out of these systems, as they are designed. That travels into the groundwater, and oftentimes, into local coastal waters. That nitrogen can give rise to large algae blooms, which can lead to fish kills and other problems, including cyanobacteria.

The state wants to put an end to that by creating what they’re calling a watershed permit.

Towns with degraded watersheds — which includes every town on the Cape — will have to submit a 20-year plan that shows how they’ll address nitrogen pollution in order to get this watershed permit.

Sewers will likely be a big part of those plans, and the state wants the first five years to be the most intensive in terms of action. In other words, the state wants towns to move faster than they have been in tackling wastewater issues.

If a town doesn’t get a permit, every homeowner in those watersheds would have to install special technology at their septic system to remove the nitrogen, often called innovative alternative systems, or I/A systems.

That technology could cost as much as $40,000 per homeowner.

A meaningful boost for sewers

“It’s a brilliant idea,” says Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and a former Mashpee select board member who pushed for sewer projects for years in Mashpee.

He says the state proposal will give town officials and environmental advocates help when it comes to funding sewer projects. Some towns have stalled moving forward because of voter opposition. But if taxpayers have the looming threat of a $40,000 septic system upgrade, they might be inclined to agree to a tax increase instead for sewers.

Gottlieb says that the new proposal is something of a workaround for the state’s environmental department. They can’t manage wastewater outside of septic system regulations, known as Title 5. By updating Title 5 regulations, they're putting pressure on residents to support wastewater planning.

'The 208 Dilemma'

Still, others worry the proposal could lead to redundancy and potentially unintended consequences.

In a letter to MassDEP, Barnstable town manager Mark Ells and DPW director Dan Santos called it the “208 Dilemma.”

In 2013 the Cape Cod Commission announced the 208 Plan, which basically requires towns to work together to address wastewater issues across the Cape. Barnstable town officials say they’ve been working on a plan for years. The town's $1 billion-dollar plan has already gotten state approval, and it's starting to build.

Ells and Santos want the state to consider those plans when creating regulations around these watershed permits. Redoing permitting can be time consuming and costly, they say.

For a town like Falmouth, that has more than a dozen estuaries, a requirement for new watershed permits has the potential to be especially expensive and time intensive.

And there’s also a fear that the alternative to the watershed permits — the innovative alternative technology — won’t be effective.

The innovative technology system would be installed between a septic tank and a leach field. It typically uses a carbon source, such as wood chips, to remove nitrogen from the water before it’s leeched into the groundwater.

But the technology has more often been used to address nitrogen in drinking water, which actually has a more lenient threshold. The systems typically been installed for homes near a public water supply or near a private well.

The technology is still being developed to help address nitrogen sensitive embayments, and a new project in Barnstable is showing promising results at reducing nitrogen.

But systems that have so far received state approval can only reduce nitrogen to a concentration that’s still much higher than treatment by a sewage treatment facility.

There’s also the issue of production. CAI spoke to local regulators, including Dr. Robert Duncanson in Chatham, who say the industry couldn’t mass-produce these systems even close to the scale that might be needed on the Cape. If the whole town of Falmouth, for example, was required to get the retrofit, that could be 14,000 units. There are not enough companies and installers to meet that demand, Duncanson said.

Nor are there resources to effectively monitor the technology to make sure it’s working.

Which leads to another worry from the town of Barnstable, already started on its $1 billion sewering plan. In the letter stating their concerns to MassDEP, Ells and Santos worry that even if every town resident were able to install these systems, the town likely wouldn’t hit clean water standards under the Clean Water Act. The town would still be in violation and may have to install sewers anyway. Asking residents to increase taxes to pay for sewers, after updating their septic systems would be a challenge.

And the Barnstable town officials worry that residents, with the choice now presented to them, might view the I/A technology as cheaper and therefore a better choice, when in truth it may not represent a best-case solution.

What about phosphorous, PFAS?

Further complicating matters, nitrogen is not the only component of wastewater that could be regulated in the future.

Increasingly, reports on the Cape point to algae blooms on the rise in freshwater ponds. Freshwater ponds have more problems with phosphorous than nitrogen, and town officials worry the state might step up regulation of phosphorous on the septic tank level. That could come with another retrofit.

There’s also rising concerns about the emerging contaminant known as PFAS. Could that, wonder town officials, be regulated someday at the septic tank as well?

Dennis select board officials posed this concern during a meeting earlier this month with MassDEP. Board members said the concern ultimately was an argument in support of a town-wide sewer system. With one sewage treatment plant, only one retrofit is needed, rather than thousands at individual septic systems throughout town.

State officials say the regulations will also formalize a number of alternatives to sewers that towns have considered in the past

Millie Garcia-Sarano, with the state environmental department, presented the new septic proposal at that Dennis select board meeting. She says that sewers will likely play a large roll in watershed permits, but other options, like aquaculture, could factored in, as well.

“What we are trying to do is provide that balance so that the town can come up with a mix of solutions that get at the heart of the removal requirements,” Garcia-Sarano said.

The state proposal is still in the early stages. MassDEP is meeting with select boards and town managers and taking their feedback. No listening sessions for the general public are scheduled yet.

But state officials say the draft process is moving fast, and they could have a final regulation in place by early next year. And towns could be forced to get a watershed permit in hand within five years, or have homeowners face the septic system upgrade.

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.