Wastewater management poses a significant challenge to Cape Cod, Massachusetts with nutrient laden water increasingly threatening the quality of water of the local water bodies that draw residents and visitors alike. The Town of Orleans, a small municipality on the Lower Cape, relies exclusively on on-site septic systems to treat its wastewater. Most of these systems were not designed to remove nitrogen, which now flows into the coastal waters at rates far in excess of what those systems can process, resulting in ecological and water quality degradation. While the town led many of its neighbors in developing and receiving approval for the required Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) to meet established total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), several attempts to seek funding at its annual town meetings failed, with Orleans unable to gain the required two-thirds of votes approving financing for its approved CWMP. Opposition to the CWMP stemmed from several areas, primarily spurred by the high costs and resultantly perceived unaffordability of sewering, as well as disagreement over: the accuracy of water quality data, efficacy of less expensive but less tested “non-traditional” treatment systems, equity of cost allocation across residential and commercial users, fears about “growth” and changes to the character of the town, likelihood of agency enforceability, and criticality of the problem. Multiple supportive and opposed civic groups active in town advocated for divergent approaches and criticized the information and messages of one another.
The town contracted CBI due to its previous wastewater projects on the Cape. In 2013, CBI worked alongside the Cape Cod Commission to engage stakeholders across the Cape in developing a Section 208 Plan, which opened the potential for regulatory support for non-traditional nutrient removal technologies to meet TMDL requirements (See the 208 Plan Update). Thus, in the spring of 2014, the Town of Orleans engaged CBI and Water Resources Associates to help initiate and facilitate a consensus building process, with the objective of reaching agreement among stakeholder groups for a wastewater and water quality management plan.
Rather than simply helping the town redo its traditional CWMP process, the management team, composed of CBI, Water Resources Associates, and local government leadership, created a process seeking a more holistic solution to address residents’ underlying interests and needs, supported through collaboration and negotiation. CBI helped form an advisory panel, which included the town’s five selectmen as well as representatives and alternates from the interested civic groups in town. Liaisons from town boards and commissions, neighboring towns, and regional and state regulatory agencies also participated actively throughout the process, which was instrumental to its success.
Over the next year, CBI facilitated thirteen half-day meetings of the advisory panel, which were open to the public and broadcast live on local television. After establishing ground rules, defining criteria for success, and clarifying existing data and data needs, the management team and the group examined a set of starting-point, hypothetical “bookend” scenarios - one using only traditional technologies (i.e. sewer systems) and the other using only non-traditional technologies (e.g. aquaculture), both of which could meet water quality standards. These bookends set the extreme ends for the plan, and future meetings synthesized and refined the best ideas from each to develop a “hybrid” plan, which was then further explored, evaluated, and refined by the Panel, drawing on additional technical examination and robust group dialogue.
In March of 2015, the panel reached a consensus on a tailored, hybrid approach to meeting their water quality requirements that includes reduced-size sewer footprints and a commitment to maximize the use of non-traditional technologies in the rest of the town, within an adaptive management approach and monitoring framework.
Residents passed the first phase of agreed work unanimously in a town meeting and handily supported it in a town referendum in May 2015. The panel is continuing to meet and develop the plan, drawing on data from the pilots on the non-traditional technologies. They have continued to put forth town meeting articles that pass at town meetings. Two main shifts proved key in shifting the process from contention to collaboration: