Shoestring Bay Can’t Wait Another 20 Years: Approve I/A Systems Now

For more than 20 years, the towns of Barnstable and Mashpee have known that Shoestring Bay was being slowly destroyed by excess nitrogen from septic systems leaching into the groundwater. They’ve known that Title 5-approved septic systems were never designed to remove nitrogen from wastewater. And they’ve known that the installation of Title 5 septic systems in nitrogen-sensitive areas is specifically prohibited by the regulation.

Two decades. Plenty of plans and reports. Lots of hand-wringing. Little or nothing done. All while Shoestring Bay’s habitat slowly degraded. So we cheered when Barnstable released its Mass. DEP-mandated Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) in 2019, a 30-year road map for moving Barnstable off of septic systems and on to sewers. And then we read the Plan.

Another 20-Year Delay?
While the CWMP declared Shoestring Bay (and Popponesset Bay) “significantly impaired” and noted that the remedy required 100% septic effluent load removal [5-85], there was no urgency in addressing the problem. Sewering in our neck of the woods won’t likely happen within the next, oh, 20 years or more. We’re in Stage 2 behind the first three Phases, with no time frame in place thanks to a complicated inter-municipal agreement (IMA) previously signed with Mashpee and Sandwich. The CWMP notes that if the IMA doesn’t address water quality concerns in Shoestring Bay, “the Town intends to pursue sewer expansion [in] the areas identified in the stages. [5-3]  And that will happen…when?

A Short-Term Solution: Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems
Shoestring Bay doesn’t have 20 years. Some marine biologists think our estuarial bay system doesn’t even have five years to right itself. That’s why a lot of our neighbors and fellow Cape Cod environmental activists are pushing for emergency authorization of Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems as an alternative to an uncertain future of sewering. I/A Septic Systems have been around for a decade or so and while they’re relatively new technologies, they’re no longer pioneering or bleeding edge.

NitROE Tank Addition System
  • I/A technologies improve the architecture of Title 5 systems by adding an interim step to effluent treatment (see above graphic) that actually releases most of the inert nitrogen gas back to the atmosphere instead of discharging it into a leaching field – and hence into groundwater. [Source: NEWEA]
  • As of October 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] had approved 33 different I/A nitrogen removing systems for homeowners to install. Each went through a rigorous and expensive approval process of testing, piloting, and permitting.
  • On the Cape, 2300 homeowners [view map] have installed approved I/A systems.[Source: Barnstable County Health Organization]
  • Our friends at Barnstable Clean Water Coalition are conducting an I/A pilot program in partnership with the EPA at Shubael Pond in Marstons Mills. The system they’ve chosen reduces typical Title 5 nitrogen concentrations from 65-90 MG/L N down to 3-10 MG/L N.

A Simple Request: Start Mandating I/A Septic Systems Now!
To recap:

  • I/A septic systems are approved and in use throughout the Cape
  • Title 5 septic systems do not remove nitrogen from wastewater
  • Title 5 septic systems are prohibited in nitrogen-sensitive areas

Ah, you might say, that must mean Barnstable and Mashpee town governments have halted build outs of Title 5 septic systems in sensitive areas and mandated I/A systems in their place. Sadly, that is not the case. Month after month, Town boards approve construction/renovation of sizable homes in nitrogen-sensitive areas with traditional septic systems. Forgive the hyperbole, but that’s insane! Both towns should stop green-lighting Title 5 septic systems now and mandate that I/A systems be installed in all new/renovated homes in nitrogen-sensitive areas.

Another Request: Let Homeowners Install I/A Systems in Lieu of Sewer
Given the dire situation in the Popponesset Bay watershed you might think Barnstable would at least allow residents to install one of the more effective I/A systems now, instead of waiting for the sewer. But the Town has gone all-in on sewering and treats these proven non-traditional solutions with indifference.

Photo courtesy of Barnstable Today

At a Town Council meeting conducted via Zoom on April 29, 2021, Barnstable Town Manager Mark Ells stated that for any I/A system to compete with sewering it must consistently, through annual performance inspections, meet or come in below the target the Town has set of 3 MG/L N [milligrams per liter of nitrogen] within the effluent sent to the leaching field. At present, none of the state-approved I/A systems meets that extremely low target. Many come close, and some newer, under-review systems are proving equal to the target of 3 MG/L N.

Environmental groups, including ours, take issue with the 3 MG/L N the Town set for nitrogen removal and hope that once the Mass. DEP releases renewed standards, this target will be updated to <10 MG/L N.  As of today, the Town of Barnstable will not allow me, a homeowner on Shoestring Bay, to install a high-performance I/A system now and obtain a waiver from the sewering assessment obligation’s attendant tax increase of @$17,000 over 30 years. Why? Because no currently accepted technologies can compete 1:1 with sewers. For the record, the cost of an I/A system retrofit ($15,000 to $27,000) could be far more than the added tax assessment. For us, the issue is the urgency to act now. But urgency, sadly, seems to be missing from the Town of Barnstable’s vocabulary.

We’re asking the Town of Barnstable to take the dire condition of Shoestring Bay into consideration and:
1) Accelerate the process of reviewing, approving, and installing I/A systems, or fast-track the installation of the sewering system. Two I/A systems undergoing testing by the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) are currently delivering effluent with <10 MG/L N.  Why not run a pilot program with residents along Shoestring/Popponesset Bays who are willing to pay for an I/A system now in lieu of far-future sewering? We’d pay for it, agree to all the testing, follow the standards…and start the clean-up Shoestring Bay, now. 

High-Nitrogen in Santuit River Flows
into Shoestring Bay

2) Inspect all Title 5 Septic Systems now and search for failed septic and/or active cesspool systems along the Santuit River in both Mashpee and Barnstable. According to a 2004 report on the health of Popponesset/ Shoestring Bays by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project [Read Report], a significant amount of the nitrogen loading emanates from the Santuit River. [see graphic at right] These inspections and remediations should be done immediately.

Five More Years?
At the April 29, 2021 Town Council meeting, Town Manager Ells said that the issues surrounding the installation and monitoring of I/A systems are “complicated” and need to be managed regionally, across the Cape. “As we review and adapt our plan and I/A systems are approved, the town needs to ‘embark on a discussion’ with regards to product standards, testing, and so on.” We understand the complexity of these issues, but maybe the time to “embark on a discussion” was 10 years ago. The clock is ticking.

Our Bay can’t wait five years .
We’re done waiting…please act now!

2 thoughts on “Shoestring Bay Can’t Wait Another 20 Years: Approve I/A Systems Now

  1. Glenn McCarthy

    It is befuddling the Barnstable (and Mashpee) continue to approve projects and septic systems, practically every 2 weeks, often right at the edge of our bays, that don’t remove any nitrogen at all. Have we not learned from the past decades? Seems like a no brainer, to take something that would otherwise put out 35 ++ MG/L N and get it down to 10, 5 or now even close to 3. The bays are already overloaded and we are over our discharge limits. Lets STOP adding to the problem every 2 weeks

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s