Wes Ewell

Recent posts on social media about a proposed wastewater outfall into the canal evoke images of huge volumes of brown sludge pouring into pristine waters. That is unfortunate, because the reality is that the proposed plan would benefit the entire Buzzards Bay watershed while greatly reducing pollution in many of its bays and inlets.

In brief, this proposal would create a regional wastewater district that includes Bourne, Marion, Wareham, Plymouth and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. It is being driven by the region’s primary environmental organization, the Buzzards Bay Coalition. This is an unusual combination of players that has attracted support from both state and federal environmental protection agencies.

Bourne has a neighborhood of 850 houses on tiny lots with cesspools and septic systems that drain into Buttermilk Bay. Plymouth has a neighborhood of 450 houses on tiny lots south of Route 25 that also drains into Buttermilk Bay and is isolated from the town treatment plants. Wareham wants to expand sewer service to three mobile home parks and other neighborhoods. Marion and the academy have obsolete treatment facilities that need to be replaced soon.

Wareham’s wastewater treatment plant has been cited as the best-run in the state. It consistently produces an effluent that measures well below state limits for total nitrogen, the primary pollutant of saltwater embayments. There is room on its site to double or triple the size of the Wareham facility, but it cannot even operate at current capacity because it discharges into the Agawam River, which is little more than a creek at the discharge point.

If the Wareham plant could discharge into the canal, as the academy does now, there would be almost no limit on its expansion capacity. It could then treat the wastewater from Marion, the academy and the currently unsewered neighborhoods in Wareham, Plymouth and Buzzards Bay. It will be an expensive project, but far less expensive than if each town and the academy had to build its own treatment plant.

This plan has been underway for seven years now. The coalition has received several substantial grants from the federal government to evaluate potential routes of an outfall pipe and to determine what effect an expanded outfall would have on water quality in the canal. It had to monitor existing conditions at the outfall location for two years before it could begin the permit process.

An evaluation of the proposed outfall conducted by a team of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth calculated that the canal flushes between 56 and 80 billion gallons of water a day. Then, through a series of computer model scenarios, the team concluded that even if the volume of effluent from the Wareham plant were quintupled to 10,000 gallons per day, it would have a negligible effect on water quality in the canal.

The primary advantage of a canal outfall is the high volume of water and its rapid movement that result in quick dilution and dispersion of the already highly treated effluent. With the proposed plan being initiated and managed by the Buzzards Bay Coalition, we can be confident that all potential environmental threats of the outfall will be thoroughly addressed. This is literally a win-win solution to a serious problem for all involved.

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