EASTHAM — The four Outer Cape towns are developing strategies — from raking pond bottoms to running oxygen through their waters — to address proposed changes in the state’s Title 5 regulations for septic systems. The changes were detailed in a July 21 article in the Independent.
Although the changes still must undergo public comment, towns can avoid costly changes to individual septic systems by drafting broader watershed plans that offer alternative, customized strategies to lower nitrogen levels.
If the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approves such a plan, the town would receive a watershed permit, requiring it to monitor and report results of the implemented strategies over a 20-year period. If those strategies do not reduce nitrogen levels, the town must modify its plans.
Wellfleet submitted the final draft of its targeted watershed plan to DEP representatives during a June 23 select board meeting. That draft will be reviewed by the DEP and Cape Cod Commission before being presented for public comment. Its strategies include restoration of the Herring River and Mayo Creek, sewering, and shellfish farming that naturally reduces nitrogen levels.
Eastham is also drafting a targeted watershed plan after working with wastewater consultants for over a decade to address water quality issues.
Two sites — Salt Pond and Town Cove — are most affected by nutrient loading. Eastham’s plan will focus on the Nauset Harbor Estuary, which includes these two sub-watersheds, according to Jane Crowley, director of the town’s health and environment dept.
“Mass. DEP’s proposed changes support the efforts we are taking,” Crowley said. “We have been moving in this direction for several years.”
The town is testing three potential sites for a municipal sewage treatment plant — one of the strategies that will be included in the watershed plan.
The town’s DPW site, a portion of the T-Time property, and the sand pit behind Brewster Sand & Gravel will undergo soil evaluations and hydraulic testing in the coming months to determine their capacities for wastewater treatment, according to Crowley.
Eastham already has several projects that target nitrogen mitigation.
In 2020, a permeable reactive barrier was installed at the Salt Pond Visitor Center. The barrier creates “a treatment zone that intercepts and removes contaminants before they can travel further down-gradient,” according to the Eastham website.
Hydro-raking and aeration projects at Schoolhouse Minister Pond were established to combat eutrophication — in which nitrogen and phosphorus deplete oxygen, causing an overgrowth of plant biomass that disrupts the natural habitat of the pond.
Hydro-raking removes rooted vegetation as well as muck and debris from the pond, while aeration mixes water in the pond via pumps and hoses.
A team of engineers is also examining stormwater management designs on Route 6. Alternative septic system designs are being implemented and tested, and shellfish aquaculture projects are underway at Salt Pond as a natural way to remove nitrogen.
Truro: Poor to Moderate
A targeted watershed plan could be on the horizon for Truro, too, but more water testing is needed to determine the town’s next steps, according to Health and Conservation Agent Emily Beebe.
“Is there one thing that we need to do? No,” said Beebe. “We have several things that we need to do at the same time.”
UMass-Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology conducted water quality tests in Provincetown Harbor, East Harbor Lagoon, Pamet Harbor, and Hatches Harbor from 2007 to 2009. In 2010, Truro and Provincetown submitted the results to Mass. DEP.
The report showed that the Pamet River system has poor to moderate water quality. “There was no direct signal that waters were impaired to the level that triggered further work immediately,” said Beebe. “We are not in an impaired bracket, but where are we?”
Since that time, the Center for Coastal Studies has been monitoring water quality in both East Harbor and the Pamet River to understand if conditions are declining. Further testing is needed.
Truro completed phase 1 of an integrated water resources management plan in 2014, focusing on septic systems and stormwater. Phase 2 began in March 2015, with a focus on “defining potential threats to groundwater quality and solutions to protect against these threats,” according to a 2017 report by the Cape Cod Commission.
“What we learned is that we have to develop a plan to address nitrogen as it impacts private and public wells, and we need to address Beach Point,” said Beebe.
Beach Point, off Shore Road in Truro, needs monitoring due to a high concentration of wastewater in a small, fragile area. Other areas that require monitoring include kettle ponds, East Harbor, the Pamet River, and Zone IIs (areas within an aquifer that contribute water to wells).
Beebe said Truro aims to reduce nitrogen levels by 25 percent, but that goal needs to be refined.
In May 2021, the Truro Board of Health updated regulations for cesspools, septic systems, and well-water testing. Since then, “private wells are being sampled now more than they ever have,” said Beebe.
People who rent their property for six months or less must provide a well-water sample every year. This rule alone accounts for 600 to 700 wells that were not being tested before, according to Beebe.
“The towns have been invested in this,” said Beebe. “We have a sole-source aquifer. We have so much more in common than we think. We can improve things.”
Since 2003, Provincetown has addressed wastewater needs through a downtown sewer system.
Provincetown’s wastewater collection system “now stretches from one end of the town’s waterfront to the other, including a majority of the low-lying and waterfront areas from the Cape Cod National Seashore Park to the Truro town line, including the environmentally-sensitive Shank Painter Pond area,” according to a 2020 Provincetown DPW report.
“I don’t know to what extent [proposed Title 5 changes] will affect Provincetown because we are ahead of the game when it comes to trying to tackle nitrogen pollution,” select board member Leslie Sandberg said at a June 27 meeting.
DPW Director Jim Vincent said the town’s wastewater system meets the requirements of the proposed Title 5 regulations regarding nitrogen sensitive areas.
“My understanding at this point is that we do not have a nitrogen sensitive area in Provincetown,” he said. According to Vincent, the DEP will still touch base with Provincetown regarding the issue, but it is unlikely that the proposed regulations will significantly affect the town.