If there's one thing Cape Codders care about, it's water. Whether it's groundwater, which comes from our single-source aquifer, or the coastal waters that drive our economy—which the region will spend billions on to clean up toxic nutrient loading—clean water is as important as the air we breath.
It's ironic, then, that levels of MTBE, a gasoline additive that may be carcinogenic in high concentrations, was detected in groundwater at the Harwich Water Department headquarters on Chatham Road. The compound was only found in one of the three wells at the site, and in levels low enough to be considered trace amounts, so there appears to be no cause for alarm—yet. The source is likely the fleet of water department vehicles kept at the Chatham Road location. “It's not the ideal place to store vehicles for well field protection,” department superintendent Daniel Pelletier told the town's real estate and open space committee last week.
The solution that's been broached is to move the department to the land on Queen Anne Road that had been the site of a proposed pet cemetery. That controversial plan was shot down by voters last May, and the land reverted to selectmen to determine its future use. The real estate committee has been asked to weigh in with its ideas for the 2.2 acres.
At first blush, this seems to make sense. Moving the water department's operation—offices, staff, and vehicles—out of the groundwater protection zone and into what is essentially an industrial area, just down the road from the town's department of public works and transfer station, seems logical. A back-of-the-envelop calculation by Pelletier showed the parcel is suitable. What doesn't make sense is continuing to run what is essentially an industrial facility right on top of three public water supply wells.
The problem is the proposal isn't on the town's capital plan, and adding another big ticket item may not sit well with Harwich residents, who have seen their property tax rate escalate significantly in recent years. Much of that is related to sewers, which, again, is a long-term investment to safeguard coastal waters. We shouldn't be taking chances with groundwater, either; it seems wise to look at the capital plan and determine how best to fit in a new water department facility, on the former pet cemetery land, without significantly increasing the tax rate.
Given the Trump administration's drive to gut clean water regulations, it's up to local authorities to ensure that our waters remain safe. Harwich needs to move this matter up on its priority list.