Addressing the nitrogen challenge on Cape Cod
Two experts agree on a lot, but still at odds
STATE GOVERNMENT OFTEN seems distant from the everyday lives of Massachusetts residents, but that’s not true these days on Cape Cod.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued draft regulations that could require thousands of Cape residents to upgrade or replace their septic systems – or scrap their septic systems altogether and go with a county-wide watershed permit plan — to deal with the growing threat of nitrogen pollution.
It’s a costly proposition that has divided the region, prompted pushback on Beacon Hill, and stirred yet another debate about pollution and who should pay to deal with it. Of late, the debate has been pretty chippy.
The Codcast offers a balanced, nuanced look at the issue from two experts on the Cape who find a lot to agree about but nevertheless stake out different positions.
Alan McLennen, the chair of the Orleans Board of Water and Sewer commissioners and a member of the Orleans Select Board, and Stephen Rafferty, the vice chair of Falmouth’s Water Quality Management Committee, agree the nitrogen problem on Cape Cod is serious.
Wastewater from many Cape homes is run through septic systems and released into the nearby sandy soil. The nitrogen in urine travels through the earth into waterways, spurring the growth of algae that kills off plant and wildlife and leaves a foul smell.
Prodded by a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation, the state Department of Environmental Protection has proposed regulations that would require individual homeowners to install new septic systems within five years or whole communities to come up with a plan to scale back nitrogen levels over 20 years.
Both McLennen and Rafferty say the home-by-home approach won’t work, in part because the new septic systems are expensive and largely ineffective. That leaves the community approach, which Rafferty says is basically a mandate.
“One of the things I find sort of unfair about the proposal they have is they know that no community is going to require all their homeowners to put new septic systems in,” Rafferty said. “If they had turned around and said you have to do these watershed permits and comply within 20 years that would be an unfunded mandate and the Legislature would have to find some funding mechanism.”
McLennen said Orleans, joined by the towns of Chatham, Harwich, and Brewster, developed the first watershed permit granted in Massachusetts and so far it’s worked well to clean up Pleasant Bay. The permit calls for reducing nitrogen levels through a combination of sewers, permeable barriers, and aquaculture to lower nitrogen levels naturally.
“We have met about 84 percent of the nitrogen removal that has to be taken care of so far. So we know the permitting process works,” he said. “We know how to do this.”
“The way this is unfolding for Falmouth is we probably are [going] to have to convince voters in the community of a major Proposition 2½ override [to pay for the clean-up] and then still not coming into compliance within the time frame they have,” he said.“We’re willing, and I think other communities are willing, to sit down with the DEP and get their understanding of where they’re at and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it as opposed to them saying here’s something you’re going to have to do which is an impossibility but if you don’t want to do the impossible you can do the difficult,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic the DEP will do some modifications before they promulgate final regulations.”