CHATHAM — A draft agreement governing the flow of millions of gallons of wastewater and millions of taxpayer dollars between Harwich and Chatham had its first review by selectmen last Thursday.
The draft intermunicipal agreement is the product of two years of negotiations and more than a decade of discussions on the potential collaboration. A subcommittee comprised of two selectmen from each town and staff experts from Chatham and Harwich produced the 20-page document.
Under the agreement, Harwich would purchase 300,000 gallons per day (gpd) in treatment capacity at Chatham's plant for a fee of $6,765,000, payable in five installments spread out for as much as a decade. The figure represents 23.08 percent of the capital costs Chatham is paying for the plant, not counting grants the town received. The 300,000 gallon number, proposed by Harwich, represents 23.08 percent of the plant's 1.3 million gpd capacity.
The wastewater would come from specific areas of East Harwich where groundwater flows toward Pleasant Bay. Septic systems in these sewersheds are contributing to nitrogen pollution in the bay, including Muddy Creek and Round Cove. Under the draft agreement, Harwich could also send wastewater from the Great Sand Lakes neighborhood under certain conditions.
In addition to the capacity purchase fee, Harwich would pay to build its own sewer system in the areas covered by the agreement, and would cover a portion of the operation and maintenance costs of the plant, based both on the 23.08 percent split and on the amount of wastewater flow. If approved, the partnership would be in force for 25 years, though either town could back out after only 10 years by paying a penalty.
A key portion of the talks have involved where the treated wastewater would be recharged, or pumped back into the ground. Some favor building two pipes between the towns, one to send wastewater and one to return the treated effluent to a site in Harwich for recharge. Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said there is no compelling reason to do so, since Chatham is currently using only about 200,000 gpd of its 1.3 million gpd recharge capacity.
“Right now, there's no need to not allow Harwich to discharge in Chatham,” he said.
The intermunicipal agreement also calls for creation of a five-member advisory board containing three members from Chatham and two from Harwich, meeting quarterly to review the wastewater treatment operation and to recommend any changes.
Should it be approved by Chatham and Harwich selectmen, the agreement would be ratified by town meetings in both communities in May; in Harwich, voters will also consider the $6.765 million appropriation. The towns would then jointly apply to the state wastewater revolving fund for low interest construction loans, and the project would be designed and bid by 2018, with construction starting the following year. Ideally, Harwich properties could begin connecting to the shared sewer system in 2021.
Subcommittee member Angelo LaMantia of Harwich said the discussion has been about finding an agreement that mutually benefits both towns.
“I think we succeeded in that,” he said. “You can see the balancing act that was put in.” Chatham would receive cash from Harwich, and Harwich would save substantially over the cost of building its own treatment plant for East Harwich, estimated to cost around $12 million.
“One of the key discussions was, how long does this plant last?” Harwich Selectman Peter Hughes said. While the term of the agreement is 25 years, the plant could have adequate capacity for much longer. “The anticipation is that we will end up doing 50 years of agreement,” he said.
Harwich board Chairman Michael MacAskill said he looks forward to reading the agreement in detail, but in his cursory review since receiving the document, “it seems like a very fair deal to both towns.”
Chatham Selectman Cory Metters asked whether the agreement would cause any liabilities for taxpayers years in the future.
“Is there any downside of this?” he asked.
“I don't see any,” Duncanson said. The reason is that the extra work that Chatham needs to carry out to receive wastewater from Harwich – chiefly the extension of the sewer along Route 137 to the town line – is work that would have eventually taken place anyway.
But Chatham Selectman Seth Taylor said he has many questions about the pact. If Chatham sells Harwich about a quarter of its wastewater treatment capacity, the treatment plant will need to be expanded to accommodate Chatham's full needs when the town is completely developed, Taylor said.
Duncanson said the plant was designed with such an expansion in mind, since the current configuration can only accommodate wastewater from about two-thirds of the town. It is possible that such an expansion will someday be needed, “but that's 30 to 40 years in the future,” he said. Even the best engineers can't predict treatment needs that far ahead, Duncanson said.
Should Harwich begin to approach its 300,000 gpd limit, it will receive at least three years' notice from Chatham beforehand to allow it to devise another plan for handling the flow. Taylor said, should Harwich taxpayers decline to pay for their own recharge area, “what happens then? Because now we can't continue to process that effluent.”
“Going into this agreement, for the most part, we're assuming success,” Hughes replied. If Harwich taxpayers don't come up with an alternative plan in three years, Chatham can decline to accept the wastewater flow.
But Harwich taxpayers would be inclined to pay for their own recharge area, LaMantia said, since not doing so would leave them without wastewater treatment. Such a scenario is a possibility, but “I don't think it's a very likely one,” he said.
Chatham board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said the agreement is a “triple win.” Harwich saves on its wastewater treatment efforts, Chatham gets a cash bonus, and “ultimately, our shared environment wins.” Chatham officials have yet to determine how revenue from the agreement will be used.