A remarkable consensus developed last week at Provincetown’s special town meeting. A packed town hall auditorium agreed, nearly unanimously, to commit $75 million to an ambitious effort to make this town the only one on Cape Cod with municipal sewer service available to nearly every home by 2030 [see news story].
This concurrence emerged despite an absence of immediate water quality imperatives. Our harbor water is clean, with no eutrophication from excessive nitrogen — a result of its being wide open to tidal flushing. Our drinking water is sourced from wooded Truro. And despite Provincetown’s well-deserved reputation as a community of famously independent-minded individuals with strong opinions, there was hardly any argument against the plan.
Credit must be given to the efforts of Town Manager Alex Morse and his staff, who provided information in online forums and even tours of our wastewater treatment plant.
I went to this town meeting expecting a contentious debate, having myself felt some skepticism about the scope of the project. My questions were amplified in conversations with other well-informed but still doubting townspeople. But once the meeting was underway, there was no battle, no acrimony — just one very thoughtful amendment to clarify the language of an article, offered and accepted.
Why this unexpected consensus? I believe the outcome reflected, more than anything else, a growing understanding of the imperatives driven by climate change and community growth.
The first calls for realistic mitigation and adaptation to the hazards we face. The time for action is not in the future but today.
The second driver, our population expansion and the consequent demands for year-round and affordable housing, is much more subject to factors under our own control. Land for housing, our drinking water supply, and our wastewater capacity top this list.
Land constraints have led to infilling in every part of town, and this is likely to continue with added accessory dwelling units, for example. Town planners have assured us that their priorities will be affordable and workforce housing rather than more seasonal high-end houses. It will be important to hold them to that commitment.
The water supply appears to be adequate at present, although, as previously noted in this column, we could face further limitations under conditions of protracted drought. Recent rains have eased this concern for now.
Provincetown’s current sewer system is nearly at capacity, with limited new septic connection permits. Owing to the complexities of sewering our waterfront Commercial Street, many properties are currently served by a vacuum pump system that is now two decades old. The system failed catastrophically last summer, just before Carnival. The town-wide expansion that was green-lighted at town meeting will involve more reliable gravity flows and pumps.
The takeaway from last week’s decision was that, despite the costs for nearly all of us — especially those who are not already connected to the sewer system — as well as concerns about possibly unchecked growth, we voted for the future of this town. We came to accept, reluctantly, that there are no easy or cheap solutions to our need for effective and environmentally responsible wastewater disposal. We will have to bite the proverbial bullet.
We are a sea-level community. Sea-level rise has become too obvious to ignore. We will adapt as we must, for as long as we are able.
Brian O’Malley, M.D. is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].