Under two tents on the Mashpee Middle-High School field, 436 voters at Mashpee Town Meeting on Monday, May 3, unanimously approved a $56 million wastewater treatment project to begin to correct decades of pollution.
In impassioned speeches before the vote, town officials and residents recalled a bygone era before nitrogen-laden effluent from septic systems caused rampant algae blooms in the town’s bays that overwhelm native plant life and create dead zones as decaying algae absorbs oxygen from the water column.
“If you’re my age or older and you’ve been in this town since the early 1980s, you know that under the blue-sky reflection in the Mashpee River, the upper reaches of Popponesset Bay, Santuit River, Waquoit Bay—underneath—if you were to look underneath the water, you could see the bottom, you could see your feet on the bottom, you could see eelgrass and the habitat it provided,” Selectman Andrew R. Gottlieb said. “You also know, if you lived here that long, that's not what exists today.”
The project, which includes the construction of a wastewater treatment plant near the town’s transfer station and adjoined sewer system stretching west along Route 28 to Quinaquisset Avenue and south along Orchard Road and part of Mashpee Neck Road, still requires a majority vote in response to a ballot question at the May 8 town elections.
Jessie (Little Doe) Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, recalled that for a period during the 1980s Mashpee was the fastest-growing town in the United States.
“We put up so many houses, and we did not have a good plan in place for wastewater, so now we see what has happened as a result,” Ms. Baird said. “While we have all had a hand in the situation that we have come to see in these waters, we can also have a hand to make this right for our kids, and I hope people get behind this vote.”
After Mashpee resident Christopher Nelson offered yet another emotional account, the crowd gathered under the tents began to chant “vote.”
“I was born and raised on Cape Cod. My father was born and raised on Cape Cod. Over my lifetime, I have watched the water quality here disintegrate,” Mr. Nelson said. “I have sailboats on my wedding band because of what this place means to me—and I ask you today as residents of Mashpee to let me raise my future family here.”
“It’s time for us to save our water,” he added.
Though the town sought a debt exclusion for the sewer construction project, which required a two-thirds majority vote at Town Meeting, the project is not expected to increase taxes as it is funded largely through a short-term rental tax and 0 percent interest loans from the state.
The project constitutes the first phase of a five-phase plan to remediate nitrogen pollution in the town's bays and estuaries through sewering and shellfish propagation. If the ballot question is approved at the annual town elections on Saturday, construction could begin as soon as next spring.
After the meeting, Mr. Gottlieb said he was “blown away” by the large turnout and unanimous vote.
“Never would I have thought that we would have got that kind of unanimous vote,” he said. “Clearly people value the resource and they value what we’ve done, and they see the plan that we’ve got makes some sense.”
Mr. Gottlieb stressed the importance of the ballot question at the upcoming election. He said that if the sewer construction project receives that final approval, the town can begin to think about phase two and begin work to address similar pollution that impacts the town’s ponds.
Selectman David W. Weeden, who is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, after the meeting reflected on the words of the tribe’s former chief, Vernon (Sly Fox) Pocknett.
“Back in the 70s, he warned us. He said this [pollution] was going to happen and now we’re seeing all that he said come true,” Mr. Weeden said. “I’m saddened that it took so long to get here, and it's still going to take a long time to rectify all the problems that we’ve caused.”
“But it’s a start,” he said.