Code Red: Stop Ignoring Shoestring Bay

A History of Inaction

Massachusetts leaders have long been considered in the vanguard of environmental stewardship and coastal resource preservation. But for 20+ years, State, County, and Town leaders have known about the link between excess nitrogen loading in a watershed and deteriorating water quality on Cape Cod. They’ve known that Shoestring Bay and the broader Popponesset Bay System have been flagged as highly degraded. Yet for over 20 years our Town leaders have all but ignored us. And now, with the Town of Barnstable embarking on a massive sewering project to fix the problem of excess nitrogen, Shoestring Bay has been kicked to the back of the line, with a 20+ year horizon [if ever] for sewering.  BUT WE ARE DONE WAITING.

Why is Barnstable Ignoring Shoestring Bay?

Shoestring Bay is “shared” by the Towns of Mashpee and Barnstable, with Mashpee contributing 75% of the total nitrogen load within the Bay. In the 2004 [!!] MassDEP Estuaries Project Report, the authors noted: “In particular, the Popponesset Bay System within the Towns of Mashpee and Barnstable is at risk of eutrophication [over enrichment]” The Report continues, “The Town of Barnstable has already completed and implemented wastewater planning in other regions of the Town not associated with Popponesset Bay.” In 2004, Barnstable had already signaled that Shoestring Bay was of minimal concern to them, since the Town only contributed 17% of the nitrogen load. No wonder, then, that Barnstable began sewering Hyannis, Centerville, Osterville and Marstons Mills in 2021, while Cotuit is in the “wait 20 years if you’re lucky” category.

Using Bad Data to Belittle Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems

Ok, fair enough—you’ve prioritized sewering the areas with the most impact. But what about non-sewer options? How about giving the “OK” to residents who want to install cutting-edge High Performance Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems [HPIA] now, in lieu of sewering?

“No”, says Barnstable Town Manager Mark Ells. What we keep hearing is:

  • HPIA systems aren’t “proven” [they are, read our last post]
  • I/A systems can’t reduce 100% of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater [see below: that’s a specious argument]

In 2017 the Cape Cod Commission’s 208 plan mentions a range of nitrogen removal that would be needed to initiate the restoration of Popponesset Bay. The data reveals that 86.1 to 100% removal of septic-source nitrogen loads, would do the trick. So asking I/A systems to achieve 100% is a deflection.

Cape Cod Commision 208 Plan, 2017

High Performance Innovative Altrnative systems (HPIA) like Vegetated Woodchip Recirculating Gravel Filters (VWRGF), (as well as systems like NitROE and Layer-Cake) are proven technologies that remove 90 to 95 percent of the nitrogen from effluent before sending the liquid to the leaching field. Anyone can plainly see that this falls well within the “Subwaters with Total Attenuated Watershed Removal Targets”!

What about Banning Title 5 Septic Systems?

Here’s our last idea, Mr. Ells. Since Title 5 septic systems don’t remove ANY nitrogen from the effluent, ban them NOW.  Grandfather-in already permitted systems if you must, but STOP permitting new ones. And while you’re waiting for approval to STOP Title 5 installs, at least stop approving septic systems based on the number of permitted bedrooms instead of actual flow rates. Many of the Title 5 systems serving mega-mansion expansions and build outs are under-sized for the actual flow they’re receiving.

Our Call to Action

Mr. Ells, Cotuit and its formerly pristine bays are part of the Town of Barnstable. We’re not the “red headed step-child,” and we won’t be ignored. We pay taxes, just like residents of Centerville, Hyannis and Osterville and we need decisive action.

Here’s what we’re proposing:

  • Stop permitting Title 5 within Nitrogen Sensitive Areas immediately
  • Ask the Barnstable Health Department to issue an Emergency Use Authorization of non-typical, HPIA systems
  • Facilitate the offer of low-interest loans for property owners to install IA systems
  • Offer property owners two alternatives: Sewering or HPIA
  • Stop listening to the developer complaints about stopping Title 5.  The cost of inaction is a higher priority.

Shoestring Bay and the Popponesset Bay System can’t wait 20-30 years.  We need a solution NOW!

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