CHATHAM — With its plan to extend the sewer system to all areas of town, Chatham has set the stage to remove more nitrogen from certain waterways than state regulators require. Under one provision being explored as part of a Pleasant Bay watershed permit, that excess capacity could translate to cold, hard cash.
As part of their own plans to remove nitrogen from the bay, Orleans, Harwich and Brewster might be able to engage in “nitrogen trading” with Chatham.
“Other communities buy credits from us, basically pay us money,” and in so doing, avoid building sewer systems in areas where doing so is not cost-effective, Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen Tuesday. The board, with three members present, heard a presentation by Carole Ridley of the Pleasant Bay Alliance, which is encouraging all four towns to endorse a watershed-wide analysis of nitrogen management efforts. The four towns are expected to vote later this month on whether to take the first steps toward seeking a Pleasant Bay watershed permit, coordinating the Pleasant Bay portions of their individual wastewater management plans. That kind of regional approach could yield key dividends, potentially including a nitrogen trading pact.
The idea is fairly innovative for Massachusetts, which does not yet have a regulatory framework for such agreements, Ridley said. But Duncanson said the idea has taken hold in states around Chesapeake Bay.
“They've been doing nitrogen trading for probably the last 20 years or so,” he said. The process involves setting a per-pound price for nitrogen removal. Communities faced with building sewers or other wastewater treatment infrastructure would also be given the option to buy credits from communities that are already meeting their requirements, if doing so is more cost-effective.
“You would likely be among the prime beneficiaries of that,” Ridley said.
Nitrogen trading is only one potential part of the proposed regional nutrient removal strategy. Any regional efforts would need to meet state requirements and show success in improving water quality in various parts of the bay. The goal of the watershed-wide nitrogen management analysis would be to help all four towns achieve their state-mandated nutrient targets and to find opportunities for collaboration. Chatham and Harwich already have a strong partnership, having worked together on the Muddy Creek restoration project and approved plans to share treatment capacity at the Chatham wastewater plant.
Duncanson said Chatham has always had a strong interest in a watershed-wide approach to wastewater management. Having invested tens of millions of dollars so far in sewer extensions, Chatham officials were keen to have some assurances that other towns would do their share “so we get the ultimate goal, which is preserving the water body.” A watershed-wide permit would provide that assurance, he said.
Selectmen from all four towns have now heard Ridley's presentation and are being asked to provide feedback in advance of a planned June 22 joint meeting in Hyannis – part of the Cape Cod Commission-sponsored One Cape conference – at which she would like the boards to consider adopting resolutions endorsing the watershed-wide composite nitrogen management analysis. Chatham Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said he would like the board to review the proposal when all five members are present; only three were at Tuesday's meeting. He said he doesn't believe Chatham selectmen will be able to attend the June 22 session because of a previously scheduled meeting to consider committee appointments. Board member Shareen Davis said she believes the Pleasant Bay proposal is an important one, and asked the chairman to consider adjusting the meeting schedule to accommodate a vote on June 22.
Selectmen may take up the matter again at their next scheduled meeting on June 20.