CHATHAM — In addition to being a former state environmental official and the current executive director for the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, Andrew Gottleib is a four-term Mashpee selectman. And he knows that if constituents don't speak out about an issue, it won't be a priority for his board.
That's why in some towns, wastewater planning hasn't really moved the political needle, he said.
“In many respects, Chatham is well ahead of the game,” Gottleib told the recent gathering of the Friends of Chatham Waterways. Previous boards of selectmen, the former town manager and staff members devised a plan to extend the sewer system to all parts of town. In some ways, the technical challenge of removing the nutrient load from area waterways “is almost the easy part,” he said.
In many Cape communities, the potentially staggering cost of treating wastewater has essentially stalled the discussion, and not because elected officials don't want to solve the problem. Wastewater articles have difficulty competing against spending for schools, police and fire services, which have “built-in constituencies that show up, are loud, and challenge or push back when their needs aren't being met,” Gottleib said. “Frankly the water side doesn't have the same voice.”
As a selectman, Gottleib said if he's not hearing about an issue from citizens who catch him at the grocery store or on the street, it's not a pressing priority. People who don't understand that dynamic “don't really understand how the politics at the local level work.” Boards of selectmen in some parts of Barnstable County are focused on taxes, paying for the new Cape Cod Tech building, regulating marijuana shops, “or some other really stupid stuff,” rather than working on protecting land and water resources, he said.
The county wastewater plan, at least, lowered the prospective cost of the overall Cape Cod wastewater problem from $8 billion to $4 billion – still an enormous burden but at least something political leaders can begin to conceptualize. That opens the door to capital planning and regional partnerships and scheduling, with which “you can start to swallow that elephant. That's where we are now,” Gottleib said. A proposed Cape Cod Water Protection Trust Fund could provide a war chest for wastewater projects, possibly receiving proceeds of a tax on seasonal rental properties.
Placing some of the burden of wastewater treatment on seasonal visitors is also a fair thing to do, he argued. Like roads and other infrastructure, sewers and other wastewater solutions on Cape Cod need to be designed to meet peak demand caused by the influx of visitors in the summertime, he said.
“If you didn't have those peak flows, costs of implementing those programs would be radically less,” Gottleib said.
The Cape's political leaders are now recognizing strongly that tackling the problem of water quality isn't just about doing the right thing, he said. Having pristine waterways, healthy aquifers and good drinking water is also an economic imperative, since it forms the basis of the seasonal economy and the real estate sector on the Cape.
“It's all predicated on water quality. And if we let that go, we have nothing,” Gottleib said.
When it comes to environmental issues, changes in Washington are potentially very relevant to Cape Codders, he added.
“I don't really care what you think about this current administration,” Gottleib said. While the Trump administration has been unable to move forward with many items on its agenda, it has had great success carrying out one key goal: dismantling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
“That's something that you should be paying attention to,” Gottleib said. For obvious reasons, Lower Cape towns are “uniquely challenged and threatened” by sea level rise, even if some question the cause of climate change. But there are less visible threats to consider as well, like a drastic loosening of drinking water standards, he said. People whose homes are located on parcels where hazardous waste existed would benefit from the public health protections offered by higher limits on safe human exposure to certain chemicals, but those exposure guidelines were recently removed from the EPA's website, Gottleib said.
“You ought to worry about that,” he said.