Commission Sewer Plans Forming, Not For Quick Regional Takeover
By: Brian Kehrl
Cape Cod Commission Executive Director Paul J. Niedzwiecki this week pushed back against concerns that the county government is preparing to take over wastewater infrastructure projects across the region.
His comments came on Tuesday morning at a press conference at the commission’s Barnstable Village offices, where he unveiled a preliminary version of a new computer program that will allow towns to test different wastewater infrastructure scenarios.
But in-between demonstrations of the new geographic information system-based program, Mr. Niedzwiecki said suggestions that the commission is preparing to take over wastewater planning or create a new entity similar to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) are far off base.
The commission is focused now on planning and better understanding potential costs, he said, adding that discussions about creating a new public agency are “premature.”
The press conference comes in the aftermath of a vote this winter by the Barnstable County Commission asking Mr. Niedzwiecki and Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative Executive Director Andrew Gottlieb to put together recommendations on how to drive more cooperation between towns on the wastewater issue.
Mr. Niedzwiecki argued that such regional cooperation would be beneficial, but he said discussions about government structure should be put off until at least next year.
The county has no legal right to simply take over the projects from towns, he said. Any major change will go through a public hearing process and be subject to a referendum.
It is too early to predict exactly what might be on such a referendum, he said, but an MWRA-like agency would not work on the Cape. Whereas the cities and towns in metro-Boston that were brought under the MWRA all had infrastructure that was old and falling apart, the Cape does not even have large-scale wastewater infrastructure.
Nitrogen pollution is a problem for towns across the region, which features 46 different waterbodies impaired by too much of the nutrient. The watersheds represent 69 percent of the total land area of Cape Cod.
“This is our problem, all of us,” he said. “It is hard to conceive of individual efforts that are going to produce the most efficient results across the region, efficient in terms of both success and costs.”
A New Tool
The new computer program links together data on land parcels, nitrogen pollution, and wastewater treatment options. By creating different scenarios assigning treatment options to parcels, users of the program will be able to get a sense of how much nitrogen is removed using different types of technologies. The treatment options range from standard Title V septic systems to urine-diverting toilets to full-scale wastewater treatment plants.
The program is scheduled for release in a more final format in May. Ultimately it will include cost information for each of the different types of technologies.
The program gives towns and the public access to a type of analysis that heretofore has been provided primarily by consulting engineers hired by many Cape towns, Mr. Niedzwiecki said. It does not supplant the need for engineers to perform more detailed analyses of the treatment options and for scientists to determine whether the infrastructure will remove enough nitrogen to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.
But Mr. Niedzwiecki said he foresees the program being a new tool for towns to use in making the case for their infrastructure plans. If at a Town Meeting, for example, a resident says he has heard that a particular technology is the cheapest and best option and then questions why that technology was not used more prominently in the plan, town officials will now be able to pull up the program and illustrate on a screen in front of the crowd why that technology is not the best choice.
“It allows us to answer those questions graphically, definitively, and expeditiously,” he said.
The program is the result of four months of work by the commission’s staff, funded in part by a $150,000 state grant.
He pledged that every assumption and methodology that go into the program will be public and transparent.
That the program gives tools to the towns that they did not have before demonstrates that the commission is not strictly interested in creating a monolithic, countywide wastewater agency, Mr. Niedzwiecki said.
The program is one of several parallel tracks the commission is working on, Mr. Niedzwiecki said, efforts that also include a cost study that will detail how much towns stand to save by fostering more regional cooperation.
Who Was, Wasn’t There
Attendees at the 11 AM press conference included several state and local officials. State Senator Daniel A. Wolf (D-Harwich) lauded the progress being made by the commission and said more regional wastewater cooperation will allow him to better advocate for federal and state funding. Provincetown Selectman Austin Knight, current chairman of the Cape and Islands Selectmen’s and Councilor’s Association, said his primary concern is avoiding a court-ordered cleanup. An aide to US Representative William R. Keating also was in attendance, along with officials from Mashpee, Sandwich, Falmouth, and Barnstable.
Sen. Wolf said he was reassured by the presence of such a variety of public officials, as solving the problem will require cooperation among many levels of government.
Missing from the discussion were any opponents of the regional wastewater proposal, an observation noted by Barnstable County Commissioner Sheila R. Lyons and Mr. Niedzwiecki. No one spoke up to identify him or herself as a member of a group supposedly formed to fight the concept, calling itself Voices on Wastewater.
In an e-mail correspondence, a representative of the opposition group wrote that one of the organization’s supporters was there but did not speak up for fear of retribution. The representative declined to name the individual and several requests for telephone interviews.
Mr. Niedzwiecki’s address was in large part a pep talk about why the nitrogen issue should be addressed and how the region can rise to the challenge.
He described a field trip out on the Mashpee River with the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection last summer, where the two pulled up sediment core samples. The only species living in the muck was a sea worm that Mr. Niedzwiecki said is the “marine equivalent of the cockroach.”
“Other than that, the river is dead. The marine embayments on this peninsula are dead or dying,” he said.
However, he said that with corrective actions, the embayments could be turned around in three to five years.
“We can fix this. And we can do it in a way that is affordable,” he said.