Wastewater Puzzle Pieces Fitting Together

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Wastewater treatment

Last year’s town meeting and ballot votes to spend $47 million on wastewater remediation put implementation of the plan on the shoulders of the board of water and sewer commissioners, seen here at a Feb. 12 meeting with the board of selectmen.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS — After half a century of trying to organize the pieces of a town sewer system, the jigsaw puzzle’s outline is set and important parts are being moved into place. Town leaders heard a progress report Feb. 12 along with a reminder of what must be done in the next few months to keep things on track.

Vice President Ian Catlow of Tighe & Bond, the town’s owner’s project manager, said AECOM’s design for the downtown area collection system, wastewater treatment facility and effluent disposal area is complete. Most permits are in hand, with a state groundwater discharge permit expected this spring. Bids for the work from general contractors will be submitted by March 25, and the $47 million project must be awarded by June 30 to meet the deadline for tapping the State Revolving Fund. If the bids are higher than the appropriation, town meeting action would be required.

“SRF money allows you to finance up to 30 years,” Catlow said, “and provides (up to 10 percent) capital forgiveness. It’s a tremendous benefit.” He cited former Cape and Islands State Sen. Rob O’Leary, who “pushed through legislation (so) communities get zero percent (interest) funding for nutrient-related projects” if they meet a set of requirements.

Funds to pay off construction and long-term debt costs over the next three decades will come from four pools: 25 percent from the new Cape and Islands CleanWater Trust Fund, fueled by a 2.75 percent tax on hotels and short-term rentals; 10 percent from the SRF capital forgiveness program; 19 percent from collection system betterment fees; and 46 percent from the 6 percent hotel-motel and short-term rental tax. Any remainder would be covered by the property tax.

Property owners in the area to be sewered will be charged a betterment assessment for the cost of the collection system and in addition will need to pay to connect to the pipes. A draft sewer assessment bylaw that’s been the subject of hearings and other meetings hosted by the water and sewer commissioners proposes an assessment in which the base unit is 55 gallons per day of water use, which is equivalent to the flow of a typical condo in town. Units would be assigned based on two years of actual water usage, data that can be acquired more easily through the town’s new smart meters. Betterments may be paid all at once or in installments up to 30 years.

“There’s been a lot of dialog,” Catlow said. “A lot of people have been involved beyond the water and sewer commissioners.”

The current unit number is based on data from 2014 and 2015, but those are being used only to build a model. “When the system is built, there’ll be a new two years of water use records that will get applied to this process,” said Catlow. “This whole betterment process really needs to occur with folks getting a draft six months before the betterments are issued to soak it in and make adjustments. Probably the water use data that will feed into that starts around now and moving forward two years. The subtext is conserve, or just go about your business.”

Town counsel is reviewing the draft bylaw, which Catlow said is “a little bit unorthodox” in using a condo as the base unit rather than a typical house with a bedroom count or Title V septic flow generation. Town Administrator John Kelly said the state attorney general can’t issue a formal opinion on the bylaw until it’s been passed by town meeting, and the town might need to file special legislation.

Also on the water and sewer commissioners’ drafting table over the last few months have been sewer use rules and regulations, covering allocation of flow. Under the current draft, properties would be allowed their current flow or twice the sewer unit flow (55 gpd doubled). Access to the excess capacity of the system would be approved by the commission based on factors such as community benefit and economic development.

Using the example of a single-family house with two people living in it, Catlow said someone had asked what happens if it’s sold “to a young couple with 40 children. The short answer is, they end up not changing the use, so they’re not coming back in a for a permit for additional flow. But somebody with a restaurant who wants to switch from 40 seats to 100 seats would be coming in for a change of use, or somebody with a restaurant who wants to convert it to a pharmacy. There’ll probably be give and take over the years, with some looking for more flow and some giving flow back.”

Work is also underway about regulations for the transition from septic systems to the sewer. These will cover failing septic systems that will eventually be made unnecessary by the sewer as well as recently updated septic systems whose owners would find the near-simultaneous switch to sewer a significant financial burden. The board of health, which is working with the water and sewer commissioners on these rules, will discuss the matter at their meeting today (Feb. 20) at 2 p.m.

Catlow stressed the importance of communicating with the public about project milestones, including “trying to stay as far ahead of construction as possible so there are no surprises to residents.” Down the line, sewer rates will need to be set to support operation of the treatment plant and the wick wells at the disposal site. Catlow said the town could consider setting up a telephone hotline or bringing on an ombudsman.

Kelly said the town intends to set up a meeting with owners of town ways whose properties were the subject of recent takings for the system “to show them where the actual sewer line will go, in most cases right down the middle of the way.” The next group might be an association of condo complexes. “We want to be as user-friendly as we can,” the town administrator said.