Writers are warned against mixing metaphors. Mashpee, however, is in a tough spot, and two particular metaphors serve best to encapsulate how the town got there and what faces the town in the next few years.
With that in mind, we’ll use both metaphors, and do our best not to mix them.
Metaphor #1: The elephant in the room. In this case, the elephant is the pollution of the town’s rivers and estuaries. Title V septic systems in their watersheds are the basic culprit. The nitrogen from the systems wreaks havoc with the marine environment.
“The elephant in the room” is a phrase used to describe a really big problem that people do their best to not talk about or deal with. In fact, they’ll do anything they can to avoid talking about it or dealing with it, given their anticipation that confronting the problem will be painful and complicated, if not worse.
Dealing with this particular elephant could cost Mashpee, not a large town, up to $250 million in the coming decades. So we’re talking serious pain and probably more than a few complications.
Like many elephants in rooms, whether in our personal lives or our communities, this elephant didn’t just arrive in Mashpee. It’s been there for years.
In fairness to Mashpee, the town has paid some attention to the elephant. The state has approved the town’s comprehensive wastewater treatment plan, an innovative document that includes the massive planting of filter-feeding shellfish to reduce the amount of conventional sewer treatment infrastructure that otherwise would be needed.
The plan, however, is just that: a plan. The town now needs to start putting it into action. Mashpee has started placing shellfish in its estuaries, but has been reluctant to start spending money on sewer construction, or even plans for sewer construction.
The selectmen bear most of the responsibility for the town’s de facto dawdling.
Initially, the town’s sewer commission, with the support of the selectmen, planned to pursue legislation to create a combined sewer and water district. The legislation required the support of Mashpee voters.
In 2015, however, the selectmen reversed course and decided that they, not the commission, should implement the plan. They took a stand against the proposed sewer district. Mashpee voters went along with them.
Since then, remarkably little progress has occurred.
In their most recent delaying move, the selectmen voted 3-1 at a tempestuous special meeting last week to postpone articles involving $2.48 million in sewer spending from the October Town Meeting to next May.
The selectmen backing the move said the additional time will serve to help garner support for the proposals when they do reach Town Meeting.
The dissenter was Andrew Gottlieb, chairman of the board, who argued to keep the articles on the October Town Meeting warrant.
“It is my suspicion that the voters of the town are ahead of us in having drawn the conclusion that the time to act on our water quality is now,” Mr. Gottlieb said.
At least one had. “Stop dragging your feet!” one man attending the meeting shouted as selectmen began discussing a postponement of the articles.
Metaphor #2: The wolf at the door. This phrase implies that danger, if not immediate, is not far away, standing just outside the figurative door.
In Mashpee, this metaphor has come into play just recently.
For years, the problem was an elephant in the room: big, daunting, inconvenient, but not especially hazardous, and something that could be put off somewhat indefinitely.
Now, however, the problem also is morphing into the aforesaid wolf.
Joseph Lyons, a member of the sewer commission, sounded an alarm about the condition of Popponesset Bay at a meeting of the commission and the selectmen on August 12.
“If we don’t put solutions in the ground working in five years, that whole recreational area could face closures, due to polluted water,” Mr. Lyons said. “There would be no recreation on Mashpee River or Popponesset.”
For a town dependent on second-home owners and tourism, that’s dangerous.
In Mashpee’s form of town government, the selectmen basically decide what goes on the warrant for Town Meeting. Voters can place petition articles on a warrant, but this wastewater issue is complicated, and doesn’t lend itself to amateur efforts.
For the longtime benefit, even survival, of Mashpee, we hope the selectmen start doing a better job of confronting the elephant and taking steps to hold off the wolf. And quickly.