ORLEANS — “I have grown gray in the service of my country,” George Washington said in 1783. This week, the town’s wastewater wars veterans, their locks now silver and white after decades of advocacy, gathered on the village green to break ground for a pumping station for a downtown sewer system and treatment plant.
At the ceremony Sept. 8, Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan spoke of the moment in 2014 when what water and sewer commissioners vice chairman Alan McClennen called “a group of warring parties” came together as the Orleans Water Quality Advisory Panel. Members of the eight groups were asked to write down or draw their vision of Orleans. “When all those went up on the wall,” Galligan said, “I knew we were all on the same page.”
OWQAP “met for four hours every other week for six months,” McClennen said in his remarks, reaching “a consensus agreement outlining how Orleans would proceed to clean its waters… What happened next? Nine town meetings voted on nine bond issues, each approved by well over the two-thirds vote required. Nine debt exclusions where the voters of Orleans went to the polls and voted by a margin of greater than two to one to increase their taxes to solve our problem.”
In addition to property taxes, the $60 million project will be funded over the next decades with money from the Cape Cod and Islands Clean Water Trust, drawn from hotel-motel and short-term rental tax receipts, and betterments to be charged to the more than 1,000 users of the system.
OWQAP’s work was based on the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan approved by the state in 2011. McClennen singled out Gussie McKusick, Judith Bruce, Sims McGrath, Mike Giggey, Jon Fuller (“who wouldn’t give up”), Carolyn Kennedy and hundreds of volunteer water samplers.
Scientific spadework led the town to pursue both traditional (sewering) and non-traditional (permeable reactive barriers, nitrogen removal via shellfish) methods to meet total maximum daily limits for nitrogen in its water bodies. “The entire Cape region owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Orleans,” said Cape Cod Commission Executive Director Kristy Senatori. “The science underlying the diagnosis of the problem started here in Orleans… The path that led us here was not an easy one. This community did not shrink from the enormity of it. They rose to it and brought the Cape with them.”
Brian Dudley, Cape and Islands section chief for the state Department of Environmental Protection, recalled decades of work on Orleans and regional water issues with McKusick, including the creation of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative. He said he considers her “the godmother of wastewater on Cape Cod.”
Before the ceremony, McKusick praised consulting engineer Giggey, who advised her and fellow members of a wastewater management steering committee in 2000. “Mike took a bunch of do-good, retired, tree-hugging senior citizens and taught us all about wastewater,” she said. She said John Hinckley “was the first selectman that had the vision” and saluted former selectman “quiet Jon Fuller” who “had the vision to start downtown. That was controversial.”
The next step for wastewater treatment in Orleans is planning for Meetinghouse Pond. McKusick will always connect the need to improve that pond with a plain-spoken woman named June Fletcher, who bought a house near the pond in the 1980s so she could scratch for shellfish. After the sale, she saw a big sign declaring “Pond Closed.” Why, she asked. Water quality, she was told. Her concern was another push of the wheel toward this week’s ceremony.
“Orleans, after fits and starts, has really led the way,” state Senator Julian Cyr told the audience gathered on the green, where an underground pumping station will be built. “This project is significant not just for Orleans but for the Lower/Outer Cape. I can’t make a life in Truro without Orleans… Orleans is the real focal point and nexus and connection of the year-round economy on the Outer Cape.”
Construction of the downtown collection system, treatment plant, and effluent disposal area began this week, with completion projected in 2022.