Cape benchmark wastewater study provides a sobering view of the future

This map illustrates 24 watersheds on Martha's Vineyard,16 of which are major coastal pond watersheds. — map courtesy of the MVC

An overflow crowd of concerned Islanders filled every seat and most of the balcony stairs at the Katharine Cornell Theatre at Thursday night’s Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) meeting to hear Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director Cape Cod Commission (CCC), describe the serious ramifications of unchecked rising nitrogen levels in Cape and Island coastal ponds and water bodies and the options for stemming the flow. Doing nothing will negatively affect Island property values and environmental quality, he said of a problem that will cost millions, if not billions of dollars to correct.

Mr. Niedzwiecki was on the Vineyard at the MVC’s invitation to present the updated draft of the Section 208 Cape Cod Area-Wide Water Quality Management Plan (WQMP). The 300-plus-page draft, which was written over 14 months with input from CCC staff, consultants, and 170 stakeholders from across the Cape at a cost of $3.5 million, focused almost exclusively on rising nitrogen levels that increasingly imperil local waters and the quality of life on the Cape and Islands.

“Many of our estuaries are dead or dying,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “Shellfish no longer grow naturally in many of our bays and the only thing left is a few species of sea worms, the marine equivalent of cockroaches. We have to act.”

Mr. Niedzwiecki told the assembly that the Cape and the Vineyard face similar hurdles — both are coastal communities with nitrogen-based water quality issues, both have low density development patterns and rely heavily on inadequate Title 5 septic systems, both have seasonal surges that stretch treatment plants to capacity, and both are populated with frugal and fractious New Englanders, who have to approve costly long-term expenditures with a two-thirds vote at town meeting.

“I think that the Vineyard can benefit from the work we’ve done on the Cape,” he said. “Much of it is extraordinarily transferable.”

Watershed idea
The 2014 WQMP is based on watershed boundaries, not man-made town boundaries, an antipodal approach from the 1978 WQMP, which Mr. Neidzwiecki described as “ridiculously outdated.” There are 105 watersheds on the Cape. Mr. Neidzwiecki said creating consensus among watershed-sharing towns is a difficult task. “They joke that the only thing towns hate more than the Cape Cod Commission is each other,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said, to knowing laughter from the crowd. “There has been a lot of great local planning, but few towns have approved those plans. It’s very difficult to get a two-thirds vote at town meeting on plans that are big and expensive. There are always people who question the science and the engineering, and it’s easy for a plan to suffer the death of 1,000 cuts. The MEP (Massachusetts Estuaries Project) provides very good science. We have to break through this barrier.”

To that end, Mr. Niedzwiecki said there are tools on the CCC website, available to all, that synthesize data from the 6,000 pages of background, analysis, recommendations and supporting documents that went into the WQMP. These tools can help communities build consensus on a strategy by showing cost benefit analysis of different technologies, down to specific parcels of land. The website will keep people abreast of the latest developments in wastewater technology.

“We developed these tools so complex data sets became more accessible.” Mr. Niedzwecki said. “We hope this leads to more constructive discussions at town meeting, and that the work we’ve done makes it less expensive for you. The 208 [WQMP] program is our last opportunity to design a solution for ourselves.”

Mr. Niedzwiecki said that the special fertilizer overlay district that was drafted by the MVC and approved by all six Island towns last year shows promise for Island-wide consensus. He also described the measure as “low-hanging fruit,” given the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead.

The 2014 WQMP leaves no doubt that septic systems are the major factor in the wastewater quandary. According to the draft, the Cape accounts for less than four percent of the state population and about 20 percent of the septic systems. About 85 percent of Cape wastewater flows from homes and businesses with on-site septic systems that drain into the groundwater, and into coastal watersheds. Additionally, Title 5 septic standards are ineffective in reducing nitrogen levels since they are designed to reduce bacteria. This has been an historically heated issue between Cape interests and the EPA.

In 2010 and again in 2011, the Conservation Law Foundation and Buzzards Bay Coalition sued the EPA over Title 5 regulations, claiming the agency failed to meet its obligations under the Clean Water Act to update and to enforce water quality standards. On November 17, the legal wrangling ended with an agreement stating if the EPA agrees to stricter monitoring of a regional water quality, based on the 2014 WQMP, the lawsuits will be dropped. The deal still has to be approved by a federal judge.

New approaches
Mr. Niedzwiecki said two different teams of experts were formed to look at options for respective watersheds — one team looked at traditional methods, e.g. sewering, and the other at non-traditional strategies, e.g., eco-toilets. Since sewering is only cost-effective in high-density areas, its potential is limited on the Cape and Islands. According to the WQMP, only three percent of Cape homes are sewered. “I hope the [WQMP}
will encourage pilot programs in remote areas on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “We should not build what we don’t need, this applies to infrastructure and to bureaucracies. It will help to bring smaller, more manageable projects to town meeting.”

The overall cost estimate to bring nitrogen to acceptable levels in Cape waters is between six and eight billion dollars, according to Mr. Niedzwiecki. “I think it will be less with improving technology, and keep in mind it will be spread out over at least two generations. It’s a big number, but the longer we wait, the more expensive it will get.”

Ultimately, the new data show that investing in solutions to eutrophication makes good business sense. “This isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s an economic issue,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “New studies show for every one percent drop in water quality, there’s a .7 percent drop in property values.” Using this metric, the WQMP calculated that if the town of Barnstable had made a moderate effort to curb nitrogen discharge, average home sale prices would be $20,176 to $35,228 higher. “The [Cape Cod] chamber of commerce immediately saw the connection and has been a big help in educating the public,” he said. “Money is a great way to encourage collaboration.”

Moving forward, Mr. Niedzwiecki stressed that the CCC is ready to support the Vineyard in the battle against eutrophication. “Whatever information we have, we will give to the Vineyard,” he said. “We’d be happy to come over and help.”

Islanders respond
They have done an unbelievable amount of work that will be extremely valuable to us,” Oak Bluffs selectman and wastewater commissioner Gail Barmakian told The Times. “It’s wonderful that they’re so willing to share.”

Ms. Barmakian expressed optimism that Islanders can put the new data to use more expediently than their Cape counterparts. “I think the Island population tends to be more environmentally conscious,” she said. “Maybe I’m an optimist, but I don’t think it will be as difficult here as it is on the Cape to get towns to work together. Oak Bluffs has a great working relationship with Tisbury with the joint Lagoon Pond watershed committee.”

Ms. Barmakian said that the planning tools on the CCC website will be invaluable for town officials, and possibly watershed groups, when they create innovative wastewater management strategies. “The most important thing to remember is that all situations are different,” she said. “These tools will help measure the best solution for each town, in terms of effectiveness and cost. Some people think sewering is the answer, but it’s not. Sewering is the most expensive solution and it’s not just the upfront costs, it’s the ongoing costs.”

Melinda Loberg, chairman of the Tisbury wastewater committee and a selectman, was encouraged by the turnout. “One of the things that pleased me most was the attendance at the meeting,” she said. “It demonstrates that Islanders are aware and they care about this. When we go to town meetings we need that awareness. My strongest takeaway is that towns have to start planning financially to take this on.”

“Tisbury has some areas we think are densely populated enough to make sewering cost-effective, but we also have to look at alternatives.” Ms. Loberg said. Echoing Ms. Barmakian, she pointed to the joint Tisbury Oak Bluffs Lagoon Pond watershed committee as a nascent example of growing Island cooperation. “We’re working well together because we all care about the Lagoon. It’s very helpful to have the new data to determine who will pay for what,” she said.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall agreed with the watershed approach to the 2014 WQMP. “We need to solve our problems together,” he said. “Nitrogen doesn’t know any boundaries, algae doesn’t respect town lines. It’s going to be cheaper to do it together than each town to do it on their own.”

Mr. Bagnall said he was encouraged with the WQMP endorsement of shellfish as a viable, denitrification technique. He said a pilot program started two years ago in Sengekontacket with 500,000 oysters is bearing fruit. As of this September 15, the first batch of those oysters were legally harvestable. “The current estimate is that each oyster takes .4 of a gram of nitrogen out of the water,” Mr. Bagnall said. “So Islanders can do their part and eat a lot of oysters over the holidays.”

Linda Sibley, longtime West Tisbury MVC member, is well aware of the difficulty in building consensus beyond town lines. “The challenge for the planners is not only figure out solutions but how to bring people along,” she said. “Education is extremely important. People expect you to tell them why, persuade them there is a problem, and that there’s an engineering solution that’s worth the money. You have direct democracy in town meeting, and people identify with that in a way that you can’t relate to regional organization. Whatever the solutions are, they’re going to be so expensive. If we delay it only gets more expense. It’s something that we have to come to grips with.”

“Now is the time wastewater really has to come front and center,” MVC executive director Mark London said. “We’re really grateful for the homework [the CCC] has done for us. Sewering is not an option for most of the Island. We really need to look at alternatives.”