Proposed septic regulation push to address Cape Cod’s $4 billion pollution problem

Cape Cod homeowners are being warned to clean up their act.

It’s the latest attempt to fix widespread wastewater contamination. Proposed regulations may soon give Cape towns an ultimatum: implement a wastewater management plan over the next 20 years or all the towns’ homeowners must do costly upgrades to their septic systems in the next five years.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection held the last two public hearings for the proposal Tuesday and Wednesday night — bringing on a chorus of accusations of “holding homeowners hostage,” a “lack of transparency” and an “unfunded mandate.”

But, officials say, the residents’ panic has been stirred by confusion and the second option — homeowners across the Cape rushed into paying tens of thousands on septic upgrades — is not a likely outcome.

“It’s important to note this is not a new problem,” said Julian Cyr, state senator for Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s been over a decade of really trying to come up with a plan and a way to solve the wastewater crisis we’ve had.”

The drawn-up or approved “Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plans” in towns like Barnstable, Sandwich, Mashpee and Chatham means that homeowners are unlikely to be stuck footing individual bills.

“Most communities already meet the regulations,” Cyr said. “And for the communities that currently don’t, then we’ve got to work with them to make sure that they get there.”

The estimated $4 billion problem stems from the outdated septic systems and cesspools currently used on the Cape. These systems have long allowed nitrogen from wastewater to seep into the region’s watersheds.

“The nitrogen pollution is causing the estuaries and bays to become eutrophic, which simply means they’re dying,” said Barnstable Clean Water Coalition Executive Director Zenas Crocker.

Eutrophic, or over-nourished, waters cause toxic algae blooms — mucking up the water, choking off other marine life and killing the ecosystem.

In the latest report from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod found 90% of the Cape’s embayments are ranked “unacceptable” level of nitrogen pollution, up from 68% in 2019.

The state has taken action on the issue, including the 208 Plan Update — a broad framework to tackle the pollution signed off on by Cape towns, the state and federal regulators in 2015 — and the Cape Cod and Islands Protection Fund — funding from an excise tax on traditional lodging and short-term rentals that’s distributed $31 million to septic system projects in the region since 2018.

In recent years, towns have had “hodgepodge” of different approaches to the issue, Crocker said. Several recent lawsuits from the Conservation Law Foundation prompted a more unified effort.

“The key element here is to start to tackle that issue on a Cape and Islands-wide basis — that’s what these regulations could mean,” said Crocker. “These watersheds cross town lines. We need comprehensive regulations and a holistic approach to tackle the problem.”

In the way the 208 Plan is laid out, Cyr said, the towns are responsible for 50% of the septic upgrades’ cost, the feds 25% and the state 25%.

The expensive upgrades will continue to be a “heavy lift but necessary,” said Cyr.

The cost of the regulations, Cape Cod realtor Livia Monteforte said, may have a “sticker shock” on the local housing market.

But over the long-term, Monteforte said, “contaminated waterways decrease property values; beautified waterways increase property values.”

The cost of replacing a septic system has been estimated in the tens of thousands, Monteforte said, but can be variable depending on the region and home and estimated individually through local Board of Health offices.

“If we don’t clean up our waters, we are seriously putting at risk the economic engine of Cape Cod,” said Cyr. “People from around the world come here for our water — for our pristine beaches, marine environment and freshwater ponds.”

Muck from algae is visible on a paddle by a Cape Cod body of water. (Photo from Barnstable Clean Water Coalition)
An algae bloom is visible along a Cape Cod shoreline. (Photo from Barnstable Clean Water Coalition)