County Moves To Create Cape Cod Regional Wastewater Authority

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By: Diana T. Barth and Brian H. Kehrl
Published: 02/17/12

A special commission formed to consider the future of county government on Cape Cod recommended yesterday the creation of a robust new regional wastewater agency.

The Special Commission on County Governance—a 27-member group formed to make recommendations to Barnstable County’s three commissioners about a possible restructuring of county government—met last night and discussed broad questions about county government, and then focused on specific issues that could best be tackled regionally, including wastewater.

The group made a unanimous recommendation that the county commissioners work with the Cape’s legislative delegation to obtain special legislation establishing a Cape Cod Wastewater Authority, which the panel decided should be a separate, independent body with enough authority to realize its goal of improving water quality standards on Cape Cod.

Former state senator Robert A. O’Leary, who co-chairs the commission with former state senator Henri S. Rauschenbach, suggested that the newly created authority should have the capacity to deal with regional wastewater issues, including the power to oversee the implementation of solutions.

The language adopted yesterday recommends that the county commissioners charge both the executive director of the Cape Cod Commission and the head of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative with crafting the details of the structure, powers, and funding mechanisms for the authority.

"I don’t think we as a region can make an effective case on why we warrant additional financial assistance from the state or federal government unless we have done everything we can to bring down costs...And the single biggest cost lowering mechanism we have is regionalization."

Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative


The panel’s vote comes after months of increasing speculation about a more rigorous push to shift authority for wastewater planning and implementation from the towns to a regional entity, a push that in recent months has developed into a consensus developing among state and regional officials across Cape Cod. That consensus, however, has not trickled down to some local officials involved in the ground-level detail of planning municipal solutions to nitrogen pollution.

The Cape Cod Commission, after slowly ratcheting up its calls for a more regional focus in recent months, has already been preparing to make a more vocal pitch this spring and through 2012. The campaign is planned to involve a series of hearings in May.

The Cape’s legislative delegation, a group of eight Republicans and Democrats, both senators and representatives, published an opinion article in the Cape Cod Times last month calling for a more concerted regional effort on wastewater.

“We live in a place that is one ecosystem, as defined by geography, environment, history, economy. Why would you ever manage an ecosystem and an issue like this town by town?” state Senator Daniel A. Wolf (D-Cape and Islands) said in a recent interview. “It is a regional issue whether we like it or not.”

The Cape’s most prominent environmental advocacy organization, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, has likewise taken a stand in favor of more regional cooperation. Executive Director Edward J. DeWitt made a pitch for the idea in the group’s newsletter. “APCC believes and advocates for comprehensive, regional solutions to wastewater. Regional planning is good business, good for business, great for taxpayers, and it is an environmental imperative,” he wrote.

Christopher Kilian, a lead attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the two environmental groups suing the federal government over its handling of the Cape’s nitrogen pollution, said recently that he cannot talk about the status of the legal negotiations, but he did have some advice for towns. “It seems to us that the best way for the towns to control their own destiny is to move forward with planning and to work with other communities looking for regional efficiencies and regional solutions,” he said in an interview. “It seems to me that the best thing for towns to do would be to redouble their efforts and for that matter to work with the Cape Cod Commission.”

Advocates for more regional collaboration have argued that shifting the approach would enable the Cape to make a strong appeal for federal and state assistance, rather than each individual town seeking aid on its own.

“I don’t think we as a region can make an effective case on why we warrant additional financial assistance from the state or federal government unless we have done everything we can to bring down costs,” Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, said in an interview last week. “And the single biggest cost lowering mechanism we have is regionalization.”

Sen. Wolf agreed. “It wouldn’t be possible for me to advocate at the state level for 22 towns individually,” he said.

A greater degree of coordination would also allow for more efficient planning, the regional advocates argue, by avoiding redundancy in cases when a single wastewater treatment plant could be built to serve multiple towns, rather than each town building its own system.

Mr. Gottlieb pointed to a study conducted for the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative on opportunities for cost savings among Orleans, Eastham, and Brewster, which make up a portion of the Pleasant Bay watershed. The 2009 study analyzed the cost consequences if each town worked alone, together as a group of three, or partnered with one other town.

The study found that if all three towns were to work together toward a solution, compared to each town acting alone, it would save $21 million in initial capital costs, a 9 percent savings, and $540,000 in annual operations costs, a 25 percent savings.

“What you want to do is collect and treat the wastewater that is closest to the water body, and town boundaries get in the way of that thinking,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

Only by looking at the planning from a regional perspective will those opportunities be fully clear, Sen. Wolf said.

However, for all the backing of “regionalization” of the solutions, some local officials leading the effort do not seem to be convinced, arguing that there has been little detail offered to date and questioning the basic premises of the pitch.

F. Thomas Fudala, chairman of the Mashpee Sewer Commission, said in an interview last week that there may be a consensus emerging among county and state officials, but they have not come to talk to the towns about it.

“Going with big pipes and big facilities is a more costly idea than working on a smaller scale,” he said. “It is just one of those words, regionalization, that sounds good, but I haven’t seen any rationale or explanation of what it really means here.”

Mr. Fudala noted that the towns are in various stages of the planning process, and towns like Mashpee and Falmouth are further along than most, so waiting around for a regional agency to come up with a regional plan will likely mean a delay.

He said Mashpee is already working with Falmouth, Sandwich, and Barnstable—the towns with which Mashpee shares the Popponesset and Waquoit Bay watersheds—without a regional agency forcing it to happen.

"Going with big pipes and big facilities is a more costly idea than working on a smaller scale...It is just one of those words, regionalization, that sounds good, but I haven’t seen any rationale or explanation of what it really means here."

Thomas Fudala, chairman of the Mashpee Sewer Commission

He doubted the potential for cost savings, on the argument that regional cooperation is more advantageous for administrative savings, while the main driver of the costs is capital expenses.

A similar discussion about the benefits of a regional approach took place prior to the creation of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, Mr. Fudala said. The towns made clear they wanted help with advocating for money and assistance in coordinating with other municipalities, but they did not want a big, powerful regional agency telling every town how to go about the project.

“The collaborative was specifically not given any borrowing or financing powers at all, because of this feeling on the part of the municipalities that they were not about to support that idea,” he said.

Mr. Fudala said he would like to see more discussion with the local boards and committees that are already working on plans, to solicit their opinions and clarify the details of how this regional concept would actually work out.

Eric T. Turkington, chairman of the Falmouth Water Quality Management Committee, said in an interview last week that he would welcome the opportunity to take advantage of regional funding for the projects and to learn from how other towns are addressing the issue, but the regional coordination that already exists under the water protection collaborative and the Cape Cod Commission is sufficient.

Planning solutions to the problem is such a complex task that he questioned whether including all of the estuaries on Cape Cod under a single project would be feasible. Falmouth, for example, has 14 estuaries that it must work to clean up, he said.

There are 50 water bodies on the Cape being studied for nitrogen pollution by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project.

He said Falmouth is taking a different approach than other towns, with a strong emphasis on alternatives to conventional wastewater treatment. “I think we will have something to share with the rest of the Cape when these demonstration projects are up and running,” he said.

Mr. Turkington said he has heard lots of discussion about regional coordination, but he has not seen any details about authority, jurisdiction, and taxing. “Everyone always uses that term regional, and no one ever spells out what it entails. So it means whatever it does to the beholder,” he said. “I’m not really sure what they mean by it.”

Advocates for more regional coordination say detailed questions are premature at this point and will be answered through a public dialogue to take place throughout the year.

“I think those discussions are still in the formative stages...What we are talking about is some sort of enhanced regional agency that will be involved in planning facilities and to finance them in an equitable manner to provide operations and oversight,” Mr. Gottlieb said.

Regardless of the regional debate, however, Sen. Wolf said that nitrogen pollution must be addressed, calling it the “challenge of our generation on Cape Cod.” The last generation faced land use and planning, the problems presented by rapid development of the peninsula, he said. “And now, it is wastewater.”

“The tagline I would suggest is ‘Cape Cod: It’s all about our water.’ ” 

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