The Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection released final regulations last week that give Cape Cod communities two years to opt in to a “watershed permit” to combat nitrogen pollution from wastewater.
The regulations — part of an ongoing battle to reverse pervasive nitrogen pollution in Cape Cod’s waters — identify about 30 “nitrogen sensitive areas.” Local governments whose jurisdictions contain a nitrogen sensitive area have two years to secure a watershed permit, which lasts 20 years and allows municipalities to undertake a range of methods to reduce nitrogen pollution, including sewer systems, alternative septic systems, and nitrogen removal through aquaculture.
If a town does not secure a watershed permit after two years, individual homeowners would have to upgrade septic systems with “enhanced nitrogen reducing treatment technology” within five years.
This could, in theory, allow towns to forego applying for watershed permits and instead pass the problem along to homeowners. An individual septic tank upgrade can cost $20,000 to $40,000.
But state Sen. Julian Cyr said that the requirement on individual homeowners would likely not come to pass. “Most homeowners are probably not going to face this, because the municipalities are going to comply and have those watershed permits,” said Cyr.
Legislators are also poised to expand a tax credit for homeowners who live in the state to design and install new septic systems on their properties.
The credit is currently worth $6,000 over four years. In her first budget, Gov. Maura Healey proposed doubling the credit, giving homeowners $12,000 over three years. The state Senate’s proposed budget would triple the credit to $18,000, in an initiative spearheaded by Cyr.
The tax credit applies only to the primary residence of homeowners, excluding the many second homes on Cape Cod. Phineas Baxandall, policy director at the Mass. Budget and Policy Center, said this requirement was “advantageous” because “you’re ensuring that more of the money goes to those who might have problems with paying for the septic system.”
The House and Senate are currently in negotiations to reconcile their proposed budgets to send to Gov. Healey’s desk.
The nitrogen sensitive areas subject to the new DEP regulation are largely concentrated on the southern coast of Cape Cod and drain into Nantucket Sound. The Wellfleet Harbor Embayment System, however, will also be subject to the regulations once the Environmental Protection Agency finalizes its draft finding of acceptable nitrogen loading.
Besides that watershed, which covers most of Wellfleet and touches parts of South Truro and North Eastham, no other watersheds on the Outer Cape will be subject to the regulations, according to DEP spokesperson Fabienne Alexis.
Wellfleet already submitted a watershed permit application for its Targeted Watershed Management Plan last August. The $106.6-million plan includes constructing sewers in downtown Wellfleet, restoring salt marshes at Mayo Creek and Herring River, and switching private homes over to Innovative and Alternative (I/A) septic systems, which are far better at filtering nitrogen than typical Title 5 systems.
Though the plan was submitted in August, DEP postponed approving it until the new state regulations were finalized, according to Curt Felix, a former member of the Wellfleet Clean Water Advisory Committee.
Nonetheless, Felix and John Cumbler, who also served on the committee, said they were confident the state would approve the plan. Wellfleet has worked with the DEP for six or seven years to make the plan consistent with the state’s desires, Felix said.
If Wellfleet’s watershed permit is approved, homeowners will not be required by the state to replace or upgrade their septic systems within seven years under the new regulations. But Wellfleet’s plan will almost certainly entail many homeowners obtaining I/A septic systems, albeit over a longer period of time.
“My feeling is that, over 20 years, we need to get most homeowners who are outside of the sewer district onto the enhanced I/A system,” Cumbler said.
Though many homeowners will be eligible for the soon-to-be expanded tax credit, installing or upgrading a septic tank could still be costly. The “$64,000 question,” Felix said in November and again this week, is how to pay for these upgrades — something he said the town is still figuring out how to do.
Though Cyr noted the litany of funding sources for septic upgrades, including the tax credit and the Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund, he said it was inevitable that “taxpayers and homeowners are going to have to chip in something for this.
“It’s regrettable,” Cyr added. “We could’ve gotten 90 percent of this paid for by the federal government a couple of decades ago, but that’s not the world we’re living in.”