Wastewater Quick Facts
- 85% of Cape Cod uses on site septic systems to dispose of wastewater.
- There are over 123,000 septic systems on Cape Cod.
- Nitrogen is released from even the newest Title 5 system.
- Nitrogen causes deterioration of groundwater, lakes, ponds, bays and coastal water quality.
- Lack of wastewater infrastructure places restraints on growth and economic development.
- The 1972 Clean Water Act requires identification of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to clean up fouled waters.
- The Massachussets Estuaries Project is providing the scientific studies and research to idenntifiy TMDL’S for Cape Cod’s Coastal Watersheds
- TMDL’s have been idenfitied for 23 Watersheds and 23 more are currently pending.
- Regional wastewater planning on Cape Cod involves the cooperation of all Cape Cod towns and Barnstable County.
- County agencies involved in this effort include the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment, Barnstable County Commissioners, the Assembly of Delegates, the Cape Cod Commission. These efforts are coordinated by the newly created Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative.
Wastewater management planning has been integral part of Cape Cod’s earliest water quality protection efforts. The use of outhouses in the early colonial days soon gave way to the use of cesspools when the modern indoor toilet required a remote receptacle for waste. Cesspools later advanced to two staged septic systems which ultimately transitioned to today’s version of the 1995 Title 5 systems. There are over 123,000 septic systems on Cape Cod today. Early considerations of wastewater collection on Cape Cod dealt with providing village infrastructure in Hyannis, Barnstable and Woods Hole dating back to the 1930s. Interestingly, the Hyannis solution for collected sewage was disposal into sand beds in the interior back woods which today is now adjacent to the present day Cape Cod Mall. The Woods Hole solution consisted of an outfall pipe, which has since been decommissioned with wastewater sent to an upgraded facility.
At several points in the mid-20th century, the wastewater systems were evaluated debated and rejected. Several early plans called for regional facilities combining Dennis and Harwich and giant systems for Yarmouth and Barnstable. In 1964, Harwich even received a nod-of the head from the US Department of Interior for an outfall of primary treated effluent into Nantucket Sound. A small collection and treatment system to serve downtown gained a toe-hold in Chatham during the 1960s. At the time, federal funding could have offset the capital costs for wastewater facilities, but the sentiment of Cape Codders was the sewers would change the character of their villages and towns. Alas, sewers were not recommended in the 1978 208 Area Wide Water Quality Management Plan for Cape Cod or pursued by town or state officials.
As Cape Codders struggled to preserve their communities during a time of unprecedented growth, water quality planning became the common denominator for a strategy to regulate land use to protect groundwater for drinking water purposes. Throughout the late 70s and 80s that approach, which was recommended in the 78 208-Plan, was implemented at many levels and served the Cape well for the protection of drinking water supplies. Of our 158 groundwater wells 42% produce drinking water with less than 0.5 ppm nitrate nitrogen. Unfortunately less protected wells that have been impacted by residential development above 2 ppm nitrate account for 20% of the wells.
However, in the early 1990’s Cape Codders began to document the eutrophication of our near coastal waters of our estuaries and bays. The source of coastal eutrophication was found to be the diffuse and low concentrations of nitrogen from septic systems. Whereas 1 ppm of nitrogen in groundwater is acceptable for drinking water purposes, it is much too high for coastal ecosystems which, begin to suffer at concentrations over 0.37 ppm. This concern raised a host of new questions, namely: How many of the Cape’s surface waters have been affected? How much nitrogen is getting into them? How do we account for the nitrogen that gets released into the watershed? How much nitrogen is too much? and How much nitrogen needs to be removed?
Just like Cape Codders, it seems that citizens from across the nation were finding that their water quality was also deteriorating, leading to urgent action by regulators to implement the long dormant sections of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act that requires the identification of Total Maximum Daily loads (TMDL) to cleanup fouled waters. This collective surge of momentum and need for problem definition begat the Massachusetts Estuary Project (MEP) in 2001 that would provide the scientific answers for Cape Codders. Because we were already seeing the harmful effects of nitrogen on our estuaries it became imperative that Cape Cod’s efforts of just protecting our resources would need to shift focus to restoration.