Drone photograph courtesy of Betty Wiley.
Now more than ever, Brewster needs to focus on protecting and improving our ponds. The recently updated MA Title 5 septic system regulations only address nitrogen discharges impacting Nantucket Sound estuaries, with no consideration of all wastewater impacts. As a result, the Town of Brewster must expend resources to obtain watershed permits to address nitrogen discharges to the Pleasant Bay, Herring River, and Bass River watershed areas. With the exception of 40 feet on Pleasant Bay, all of these estuaries are located in Chatham, Dennis, and Harwich.
Securing these permits is important, but we can't let the new regulations divert our attention from the more pressing water quality issues facing Brewster: impairment risks to our over 80 freshwater kettle ponds and six miles of bayside shoreline. While finding solutions for the estuaries to our south is state mandated, protecting our ponds and the bay is essential to the wellbeing of our town.
Septic systems are the major source of human-related nutrient discharges (nitrogen and phosphorus) that are the primary cause of impairment to ponds and estuaries. Septic systems account for an estimated 80-85% of the human-caused discharges; fertilizer runoff from lawns and stormwater runoff from roads and driveways make up the remaining 15-20%. Planning to address the impairment risks from septic systems requires a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP).
The Elephant in the Room
There are 15 towns on Cape Cod. All except Brewster have a CWMP. That means that 14 Cape towns have a plan that specifically addresses all wastewater. Most of these towns are either planning or expanding sewering systems. Truro, while not planning its own sewage treatment plant, plans to partner with Provincetown. Wellfleet’s plan includes a mixture of upgraded septic systems and semi-permeable barriers to remove nitrogen in the aquifer before the water reaches Wellfleet Harbor.
Brewster’s Integrated Water Resource Management Plan
Instead of a CWMP, Brewster has an Integrated Water Resource Management Plan (IWRMP). The plan identifies issues and proposes strategies to protect and restore water quality within specific watersheds, instead of focusing on all waters and the pollution sources that threaten them - septic systems, stormwater, and fertilizer. First developed in 2009 and updated in 2022, the plan focuses on the areas around Brewster’s six public drinking water wells, as well as new or modified septic systems in the Pleasant Bay, Herring River, and Bass River watersheds; those in the Namskaket and Quivett Creek watersheds; and those near freshwater ponds and wetlands. The report highlights past studies and remediation efforts, notably the benefits of purchasing open space around our public drinking wells, as well as measures to improve Long, Walkers and Upper Mill ponds. It requires septic systems at new or expanding houses to be more than 300 feet from ponds, if possible, and recommends ways to achieve the required nitrogen reduction in the Pleasant Bay watershed.
What is missing is a clear plan to address all wastewater impacts from all Brewster neighborhoods, not just nitrogen discharges in areas that now need estuary watershed permits and wastewater from new or modified houses within 300 feet of ponds.
In particular, we need to consider the impacts from existing houses and businesses on our ponds, as well as possible future needs to protect Cape Cod Bay. We all realize that Brewster is in great need of attainable housing. However, the IWRMP does not address this issue or tell us where central or localized sewage treatment plants might be needed or desirable to support this.
Brewster needs to address the new state Title 5 requirements to protect the estuaries to our south. But we need to keep the focus on the ponds and develop a plan that focuses on the #1 source of impairment, and risk to our ponds and the bay: wastewater from septic systems. In short, we need a comprehensive wastewater management plan!