Sewering Comes to Barnstable…But Not Shoestring Bay

The Back Story:
Over-Nutrification of 
Cape Waterways
For decades, Shoestring Bay has been under attack by nitrogen-rich septic system effluent [human urine] that leaches from Title-5 septic systems. The nitrogen from our leaching fields moves quickly through the Cape’s sandy soil (up to five times faster than text book Title-5 flow rates) into the water table, and through to our waterways.

Eutrification Cycle [image courtesy of]

The consequential over-nutrification (known as eutrification; primary sources are nitrogen and phosphates) provides perfect growing conditions for those awful algae blooms we see and smell all summer. When the algae die off, bacteria consume them, depleting some of the dissolved oxygen within the water, leaving behind the dreaded brown sludge and damaged marine habitats. As the Cape’s population has exploded, so too has eutrification. Sadly, Title V septic systems do little to remove nitrogen. In fact, Title  V systems are no longer in compliance with federal Clean Water Act requirements.

At Last, the Town of Barnstable Acts
In 2019 the town released the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) a 30-year road map for moving Barnstable off of septic systems and on to sewers. Last month, Town Manager Mark Ells held a series of very detailed online community meetings to introduce a proposed Sewering Assessment Ordinance [tax] to help pay for the sewering plan, an enormous and exorbitant undertaking. We attended one of the forums and have a mixed bag of news to report. [Read about the upcoming March forums; Watch a video of a forum ]

Barnstable Sewering Plan

Let’s start with the good news: The Town of Barnstable is moving forward with its plan to clean up our waterways, largely by jettisoning Title V septic systems and moving to a sewer infrastructure.  The areas in red and green on the map (left) are the lucky ones; they may be fully sewered in 20 years. 

Shoestring Bay in Stage 2 of Sewering Plan

And the bad news? The CWMP found that Shoestring Bay is in such poor condition that it requires 100% septic effluent load removal. [CWMP page 5-85]  But our Bay and much of Cotuit’s waterways (map at left)  are at the end of the line, in Stage 2, with no time-frame in place. The Bays share borders with Mashpee & Sandwich. Consequently the Town of Barnstable chose to seek an inter-municipal agreement (IMA) to accommodate our phase.

Good luck with that happening in the next decade or three. If an IMA can’t solve our problem, the town will go the traditional sewering route with Shoestring and other areas within the Popponesset Bay system.  So, best case scenario, clean-up starts on Shoestring Bay in 2040! [Read our next post for a deeper dive into what residents living on Shoestring Bay can do while waiting for 20 years to pass by.]

50% of Funding from Town

Who Will Pay, and How
Much Will it Cost?
The Town can cover 50% of the estimated $1.4 billion cost from existing funds. The remaining $600+ million will come from an assessment on residential and commercial property owners.

Assessments Capped at $17k over 30 Years  

Sewer Assessment Capped at $17,000 over 30 Years
Assessments will vary by property size and primary use and will be capped at $17,000 per unit, to be amortized over 30 years. [Just $2.67 a day for 3 decades; less than a daily large Dunkin’ iced.] One-time connection fees will also vary by property (length of pipe, landscape restoration, etc.) but could run as high as $27,000 . The Town of Barnstable will offer financing assistance to property owners in need.

What Happens Now?
Town Manager Mark Ells and his colleagues are hosting three more community forums, on March 25 at 10am, 2pm, and 7pm. We encourage every Barnstable property owner to log on, listen, and share your views during the presentation. The more community participation, the better the ultimate plan. In April, Ells and his executive team will present the final proposed sewering ordinance to the Town Council for review and, hopefully, approval. If all goes well, construction will start on the sewer extension in Fall 2021.

Read the CWMP Plan

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