Sunday, February 5, 2012
Here's how to solve our wastewater crisis

Think regionally, act locally.

This must become Cape Cod's rallying cry when we face up to the most important environmental challenge of our generation: Wastewater, how to treat it, how to keep it from polluting our beautiful bays and ponds — and how to pay for it.

This challenge crosses all town boundaries. Cape Cod Bay, Vineyard Sound, Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound embrace us all. Our salt marshes and freshwater ponds grace us all. Our single-source aquifer courses under us all. The serious problems introduced by our wastewater can be solved best if we accept that environmental truth and work together.

With regional approaches, we can save millions, perhaps billions of dollars in construction costs. What's more, the Cape Cod Commission indicates that we dramatically improve our ability to get federal grants and funding by working together.

But this in no way means that our towns, our historic communities that embody so much knowledge and wisdom about how best to deal with our problems, must take a back seat, or surrender control of their fates.

On the contrary.

Watershed by watershed, town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, business by business, home by home if necessary, we need to treat wastewater in the smartest, least intrusive and least expensive way possible. The great advantage of regional planning is that this is the best way to do that, and the only way to garner the resources and expertise necessary to solve this problem for all of the Cape.

Smart regional thinking does not translate into giant, expensive, centralized solutions. It will guide us toward site-specific approaches, large-scale only where that's necessary, small-scale wherever possible, supporting existing single-home septic systems for many towns and neighborhoods, creative and flexible throughout, relying on local wisdom and input to reach the best plan — which actually will be many plans, worked into a cohesive whole.

Smart regional planning can also find ways to help communities that already have built treatment plants handle their financial burden, and support homeowners who remain on Title V systems that require maintenance and eventually, expensive replacement.

Smart regional effort will avoid duplication, reduce expense, and allow us to seek state and federal support for our work. This is crucial; the last thing we want to do is add such burden to our property taxes that we drive families and people on fixed incomes out of our communities.

And smart regional cooperation will prove that we have the creativity, capacity, and will to solve our own problems, building from our towns up, stopping the threat of federal court orders issuing from the top down.

For all of these reasons, Cape Cod's legislative delegation has come together to support a regional solution to our wastewater crisis. We are Republicans and Democrats, representing large towns and small from the Cape Cod Canal to Provincetown, towns with central treatment and homeowner septic systems, towns with public water supplies and private wells. We come together because we know that we must solve this problem together. As our water does not divide along town lines, neither does it divide along political lines. This challenge unites us.

We still have a lot of hard work, planning and number crunching, to be sure this is the right option, an approach we can both implement and afford. If it is, then here are the steps we foresee to accomplish our goal:

1. Work with local boards of selectmen, and the county, to build consensus for a regional plan.

2. Work at the state level to garner support for solutions created through this local process.

3. Work with our federal representatives to get all available federal resources.

We come together at a unique moment. In federal court, action that could force our hand and require onerous, expensive approaches not tailored to each of our communities is on hold for the next few months. This is our moment to work together, to fashion our own solutions and our own future.

To do that, we need to hold fast to the guiding thought:

Think regionally, act locally.