WELLFLEET — Kim Comart of the Falmouth Pond Coalition stood in front of 40 people at the Wellfleet Adult Community Center on July 6 and told them about a potential solution to Cape Cod’s water pollution problem: pee-cycling.
The big pollution culprit is nitrogen, and there is a lot of nitrogen in urine.
According to the Conservation Law Foundation, “Nitrogen moves quickly from septic systems through the Cape’s uniquely porous soil and into local water bodies. It then acts like a fertilizer, causing massive algae outbreaks that threaten animal and plant species and can make the Cape’s bays unsafe for swimming, boating, and shellfish consumption.”
Otherwise known as urine diversion, pee-cycling separates urine from the flow of other wastewater so that it never enters the ground. What’s collected can then be turned into fertilizers.
“It makes a lot of sense to me,” said Carl Sussman, a member of the Wellfleet Seasonal Residents Association board, which organized the July 6 presentation with the Wellfleet Community Forum. Compared to the costly strategies of sewers and new septic systems, he said, “These kinds of alternatives could save an enormous amount.”
Cape Cod towns are under court orders to improve wastewater management. Wellfleet has been under particular pressure to develop a targeted watershed plan because of the importance and condition of its harbor and estuary. A key remedy is nitrogen reduction.
With urine streaming from leaky septic systems and cesspools and wreaking havoc on ponds and estuaries, Outer Cape towns are developing plans to improve their wastewater management systems. For now, those mostly center on upgrading septic tanks and expanding sewers. Urine diversion has gotten less attention.
Most agree that pee-cycling would dramatically cut down on nutrient pollution at a fraction of the cost of more traditional strategies. But it would require residents to be willing to change their bathroom habits.
“It definitely works,” said Scott Horsley, a water resources expert who advises Cape towns on wastewater management and who also spoke at the Wellfleet forum. “The question is how do you get people to use it,” he added.
One approach, the focus of a proposed pilot program in Falmouth run by the Mass. Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) that will be pitched to the town government in November, involves using a different kind of toilet to divert urine into a separate tank within the home, outside, or underground. It could then be periodically pumped out and taken to a facility to be turned into fertilizer. This is far from cheap, and it’s not clear who would pay.
The Green Center is developing urine diversion technologies that they say will be more acceptable to homeowners, according to the organization’s directors, Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay. One is a urinal called the P-Pod. It is a small box in the wall that can be pushed open and closed.
Other technologies include the Cubie, a curved bucket on top of a jug, and the Wostman, a toilet with different holes for solid and liquid waste.
But there’s still much to be figured out, said Brian Baumgaertel, the director of MASSTC, such as creating the systems to transport, store, and treat the urine. Plus, there is a question of whether the urine-converted fertilizers can be used on food crops, since many of the medicines people take come out in their urine, he said.
Most properties on Cape Cod currently have cesspools or Title 5 septic systems, both of which result in wastewater being injected into the groundwater. From there, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus stemming mostly from urine leak into waterways.
It is not legal to install cesspools anymore, but Title 5 systems are still being built. In fact, in Truro, where homeowners are required to replace cesspools by the end of this year, most cesspools are simply being replaced with Title 5 systems, according to Emily Beebe, the town’s health and conservation agent. “From a groundwater contamination standpoint, cesspools and Title 5 systems are pretty similar,” Horsley said.
Plans to replace these systems mostly call for sewers — in which wastewater from a large network of houses is brought to a treatment plant that removes nutrients — or enhanced septic systems that more effectively remove nitrogen.
In Provincetown, about half the houses are connected to the municipal sewer system, with the rest using Title 5 systems or cesspools, according to Jim Vincent, director of the town’s DPW Now Provincetown is applying for USDA grant money to supplement betterment payments from residents in order to fund a $75-million sewer expansion that would connect most of the other half of town by 2030. Truro is requesting that Provincetown includes parts of North Truro in its sewer expansion, Beebe said.
That’s possible in densely developed areas like Provincetown, but for much of the Outer Cape, sewers are exorbitantly expensive due to the distance between houses, Horsley said. Instead, he said, a new generation of septic systems offers a more practical solution for many areas. While current septic systems are largely ineffective at removing nitrogen, this new technology, which relies on wood chips to provide a food source for nitrogen-removing bacteria, removes 80 to 90 percent of the nitrogen. It is nearing full approval by the state.
But these septic systems don’t remove phosphorus. And while not as costly as sewers, the systems are still expensive. Baumgaertel said they cost $30,000 to $60,000 to install, an expense that usually is borne by the homeowner.
A watershed plan for Wellfleet Harbor released last year by Horsley in conjunction with the town government proposed a mandate that new construction, upgrades, and transfers of houses include the installation of these new-generation septic systems.
It also proposed a limited downtown sewer system and the increased cultivation of shellfish, which filter out nutrients in the water, but the plan does not mention urine diversion.
Maingay argued that the urgency of the situation requires consideration of all options. “We have to be concerned about our water getting worse by the day,” she said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on July 27, misspelled the last name of Kim Comart of the Falmouth Pond Coalition. It also incorrectly included the Cinderella, which is not a urine-only toilet, in the list of pee-cycling options.