What If Mashpee’s Neighbors Have Different Priorities?
By: Elsa H. Partan
Waquoit Bay has been dropped to the bottom of the priority list in Falmouth’s sewer plan, a move that would allow wastewater treatment in several neighborhoods around the bay to be put off another 25 years.
A temporary wastewater committee in Falmouth acknowledged that it moved the Waquoit area from an early phase of construction to a later phase, one that is slated to begin in 2036.
Both Falmouth and Mashpee border Waquoit and contribute to the nitrogen loading in the bay from home septic systems and other sources, and both towns are involved in massive planning efforts to control that pollution from degrading Waquoit and other water bodies.
The change to Falmouth’s plan comes as a blow to the hope that Cape Cod towns can work together on wastewater treatment just as an effort is getting underway to forge exactly that kind of collaboration among Mashpee and its other neighbors.
Cleaning up the bay is one of Mashpee’s top priorities, in part, because the state and federal governments have mandated it. But it will be difficult to improve the bay significantly without Falmouth’s help. Mashpee Sewer Commission Chairman F. Thomas Fudala said the change might require Mashpee to rethink its approach to sewering the Waquoit area.
On the other side of town, at Popponesset Bay, a three-town agreement that was supposed to be completed this month is just getting started. The memorandum of understanding, spearheaded by Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative Executive Director Andrew R. Gottlieb, intends to address how Sandwich, Barnstable, and Mashpee should divide up responsibility for cleaning up Popponesset Bay.
By virtue of geography, Mashpee receives significant nitrogen from surrounding towns without contributing much to bays in other towns in return. The Mashpee Sewer Commission estimates that approximately 200 Mashpee homes contribute to the nitrogen in watersheds that leave Mashpee’s borders, while nitrogen from thousands of homes in Sandwich, Barnstable, and Falmouth travels through the groundwater to Mashpee’s bays and estuaries.
This means that Mashpee will likely be in a position of asking for concessions from surrounding towns without having many bargaining chips. Mr. Gottlieb said he could not think of another town on such unequal footing when it comes to nitrogen flowing in from other towns.
The exposure of conflicting priorities between Falmouth and Mashpee throws into question how a regional approach to wastewater will work, even as the Cape Cod Commission pushes collaboration among towns in its 2010 Watershed Tour. On Tuesday at a presentation at the Mashpee Public Library, the commission Executive Director Paul J. Niedzwiecki estimated that it will be 15 to 20 percent cheaper for towns to collaborate than to treat wastewater on their own. The savings could represent hundreds of millions of dollars across the Cape, he said.
Despite that incentive, collaboration is not going smoothly for Mashpee. Mr. Fudala aired his frustration at the Mashpee Sewer Commission’s November meeting. “I’m disappointed that Falmouth moved backwards,” Mr. Fudala said. “Falmouth has figured out what they are going to do, but it’s not on the bays they share with us.”
The Waquoit change was proposed by the Falmouth Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan Review Committee, a temporary group formed to provide recommendations to that town’s board of selectmen and to voters. The committee recommended bumping parts of Waquoit, directly north of the bay, from the top priority down to a third tier.
Falmouth’s plan is not finalized yet—selectmen have not settled on the overall plan and residents have not approved it. Falmouth voters turned down a key funding proposal at the Annual Town Meeting in November, indicating they were unsatisfied with the concept.
Virginia Valiela, chairman of the temporary committee in Falmouth, said it was never her group’s intention to damage Mashpee’s goals by delaying the Waquoit area. The neighborhood is simply not settled densely enough to make it a cost-effective part of Falmouth’s large-scale sewer system, she said. She pointed out that in a September 7 document, the committee proposed that a small-scale cluster system could work well there.
“We didn’t see our decision as negatively affecting Mashpee,” said Ms. Valiela, adding that wastewater treatment could be implemented in the Waquoit area as early as the rest of Phase I if the right technology became obvious.
“With a cluster system, the financing is theoretically going to be different,” she said.
Falmouth Wastewater Superintendent Gerald C. Potamis echoed Ms. Valiela. “I can assure you and the people of Mashpee that we want to work together,” he said.
He added that Falmouth’s engineers estimated that each Waquoit house would cost twice as much to connect to the sewer system as other houses, causing the committee to shy away from including the neighborhood in the first two phases.
But Falmouth is eager to work with Mashpee in discovering a mutually beneficial solution, he said. He suggested an approach called “water quality trading,” in which one town pays another to remove extra nitrogen from the water. This will only work if both towns save money, he said. Mr. Potamis acknowledged that it is not immediately apparent how Mashpee would remove the nitrogen more cheaply than Falmouth.
Complicating matters, the study and nitrogen pollution limit for the Falmouth portion of the bay have not yet been completed.
According to Mr. Gottlieb, the head of the county water collaborative, Mashpee should continue with its science-based planning approach despite getting mixed signals from its neighbors.
“There might be some frustration on Mashpee’s part with Waquoit,” he said. “But, to the extent that Mashpee has figured this out, it puts them in a strong position to guide the discussion with other towns.”
Mashpee shares responsibility for its other major estuary system, Popponesset Bay, with Barnstable, which borders the bay on the east, and Sandwich, which does not touch the bay but contributes nitrogen through groundwater.
Sandwich Health Agent David B. Mason has so far coordinated the town’s investigation into how to deal with nitrogen, which is just gathering momentum.
“I think there is hope for a regional approach,” he said this week. Mr. Mason said he was involved in earlier talks with Mashpee, Barnstable, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which demonstrated his town’s contribution to the problem in Popponesset Bay.
Nevertheless, Sandwich taxpayers might be reluctant to clean up a bay they cannot access, he said.
“We have to look at who benefits,” he said.
It does not make sense for Sandwich to install a sewer system in its sparsely populated areas to help Popponesset Bay, Mr. Gottlieb said. Instead, this might be an ideal situation for Sandwich to make a financial contribution that would fulfill its obligation and still save taxpayers money.
Barnstable Department of Public Works Director Mark Ells, who has played a central role in that town’s wastewater planning, asserted that the need to coordinate with Mashpee is well understood.
“These watersheds don’t stop at town boundaries,” he said. “We have to work with surrounding towns to come to a solution.”
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