On Cape Cod, inadequate wastewater management threatens the quality of coastal water, the region's greatest resource. More than 80 percent of Cape Cod properties use on-site septic systems, which can allow excess nitrogen to reach coastal waters. The result is ecological and water quality degradation. Existing regulations required each of the Cape’s 15 individual towns to develop a separate plan to address the issue, generally relying on conventional “big pipe” technologies. This approach required extended time periods and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding—funding that, in most cases, had to be approved by two-thirds-majority votes in individual town meetings. Several towns failed to reach this threshold. The slow progress spurred environmental groups to sue the state and federal governments to force action, threatening a rigid, expensive, imposed approach. The Cape Cod Commission, a county-level land-use planning and regulatory agency, enlisted CBI to help structure and facilitate development of a regional plan that would incorporate input from residents as well as town officials. The goal? To create a better understanding of the Cape’s shared wastewater management problems and to recommend a more efficient and effective regulatory environment for watershed planning.
In phase one, CBI worked with the commission to develop eleven Watershed-based Working Groups (WWGs), each representing a diversity of perspectives and interests, including local elected officials, town staff, wastewater management committee members, businesses, environmental and civic groups, and other residents. The groups each participated in three half-day meetings over four months, where they worked to understand and update data on baseline conditions, research and evaluate an extensive range of traditional and non-traditional technology options to address the problem, and explore approaches to building watershed-level solutions. They drew on a mix of different technologies, both traditional and non-traditional, with different scales (from site to Cape-wide), targets (wastewater, stormwater), and impacts (prevention, reduction, remediation) that could all meet water quality goals.
In phase two, these groups were rolled into four sub-regional groups, consisting of a similar mix of stakeholder categories, which met three more times. These groups refined the option planning and broached the difficult questions regarding implementation methods, monitoring protocols, financing approaches, and regulatory and legal changes.
Many common findings emerged from the individual WWGs, including broad support, in principle, of an adaptive management approach that would maximize the use of lower-cost, higher-benefit alternatives and minimize the footprint for sewers. Groups generally supported a locally determined mix of technologies that should respect local priorities for cost sharing, risk tolerance, and willingness to pay.
Throughout the process, stakeholder input helped focus subsequent meetings and the overall approach and recommendations. The commission submitted a draft (Section 208 Plan Update) to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency in early June 2014.