Rearranging the Deck Chairs: Barnstable’s New Sewering Financial Model Still Leaves Waterways Imperiled

In March 2021, the Town of Barnstable unveiled its preliminary cost model for paying for the $1.4 billion multi-decade project of sewering of the town. Half of the cost would be come from existing funds. The rest would fall on property owners, to the tune of a $17,000/property assessment, paid out over 30 years. An additional one-time hook up cost could add another $1,000 – $10,000 per property.

The response to the $17,000 cost from the Town Council was a swift NO. So, Town Manager Mark Ells and Finance Director Mark Milne sharpened their pencils and came back with a revised $10,000 infrastructure assessment fee. But in our view, rejiggering the finances is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Many of the Town’s waterways are a year or two away from collapse from nitrogen pollution. Ells and company need to re-think the strategy behind the town’s all-sewering Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) strategy and revise the 10-30 year timetable for “rescuing” imperiled waterways like Popponesset Bay/Shoestring Bay.

Another Mansion on the Cape Shoreline

While town leaders gaze 30 years down the road, they could take steps now to get to the root cause of nitrogen pollution–Title 5-approved septic systems that leach nitrogen-rich effluent into the groundwater. Barnstable continues to allow McMansions to be built on three-bedroom lots with five to seven bathrooms in each unit (with just three “official” bedrooms) while using Title 5 as their guidance. And now, we hear from a friend in Mashpee that his Town recently approved three “pool and spa” projects on the most shallow and sensitive ponds on Popponesset. They drain the pool into a dry well 50 feet from the edge of a four-foot-deep pristine pond whose only water flow comes from a spring. For decades no one would ever consider putting a pool on these tiny lots next to the ponds … and now they are approved. Clearly, Towns must change the ordinance to size the leaching fields to a property’s number of bathrooms, not bedrooms.

The facts on the ground and the letter of the law (Title 5 regs. actually discourage these very septic systems in “nitrogen sensitive areas like those found on the Cape) don’t support the continued acceptance of Title 5 in parts of Cape Cod. That’s why we strongly support the Conservation Law Foundation’s recent suit against the Towns of Barnstable and Mashpee, and the state Department of Environmental Protection. (DEP) The suit asks for temporary suspension of permitting of conventional septic systems when they are part of a new construction or replacement of an existing system.

Our Recommended Response to the CLF Lawsuit:
As Town leaders consider their response to the CLF suit, we suggest they shift away from a “sewering or bust” solution and adopt a two-path soluti

  1. Put an immediate moratorium on using Title 5 septic systems within nitrogen-sensitive areas
  2. Seek “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA) for High-Performance Innovative Alternative (IA) systems, such as those shown to deliver < 10 MG/L N as tested by the MASSTC under tightly monitored conditions
  3. Be innovative and size septic systems (IA only) on the basis of the number of Bathrooms, NOT Bedrooms
  4. Accept the implementation of closely-monitored, High-Performance IA (HPIA) systems for any new/renovation or septic system replacement projects where sewering infrastructure is more than 15+ years away.
Traditional Septic Systems Remove NO Nitrogen
Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems Remove Nitrogen

We need to end the use of Title 5-approved septic systems in nitrogen-sensitive areas now, not in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years. We need to allow property owners to retrofit their existing systems with HPIA now and yes, provide an exemption for well-maintained systems, from the sewering infrastructure assessment. Some environmentalists on the Cape oppose the CLF’s lawsuit, believing it will complicate the already in-place work towards wastewater management projects. We say, a little short-term gumming up of the works could lead to a far better, long-term result for the Cape’s waterways.

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