Special Report: U.N. expert looks into Cape water management woes

By Garrett BrngerCape Cod Times

February 25, 2011

As a United Nations contractor, Catarina de Albuquerque travels the world to ensure that governments meet the international human right to water for drinking and sanitation. This weekend, she will be monitoring those efforts on Cape Cod.

De Albuquerque, who is scheduled to visit East Falmouth today on her mission, took part in a Statehouse hearing Friday about Cape Cod’s difficulties with current water and wastewater management.

After speaking briefly about her job and experiences in Bangladesh and Slovenia at the beginning of the meeting, de Albuquerque listened to speakers from various water policy and infrastructure groups present issues about the price, efficacy and sustainability of new water management techniques.

She learned that the central problem is the high nitrogen levels in the Cape’s water and the search for alternatives to the traditional “big pipe” sewer solution.

Alternative technologies discussed included compost toilets, oyster farms and the familiar cluster sewer systems first proposed in 2009, although none was heralded as the sole savior for the water management system.

Instead, the goal was to explore just about any solution besides the “big pipe” plan, which most called expensive.

“The likelihood is the answer will be a suite of technologies and not just one,” said Becky Smith, the water organizer for Clean Water Action, one of the meeting’s co-sponsors.

Construction of a traditional-style sewer is projected to cost $60,000 per home over 20 years, said Valerie Nelson, the director of the Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment. Nelson said the entire system of water management needs to be reevaluated with the help of state funding.

“Unless we reinvent water management, we are not going to be able to provide an affordable and safe service in water and wastewater,” she said.

Former state Rep. Matthew Patrick of Falmouth said the biggest consideration for a new system would be the cost. It is no longer the case that the federal government would underwrite almost 80 percent of the cost, Patrick said. Instead, the brunt of the blow is borne by residents, many of whom are moving from the state because of high housing costs, especially on the Cape.

Paul Schwartz, Clean Water Action’s national policy coordinator, said the Cape needs to look for new technologies for the sake of sustainability.

“We’re never going to get it back to when the Pilgrims landed here in Massachusetts, and have things the way they were. But what can we expect that we can recover? What can we fix in the water cycle?” Schwartz asked.

De Albuquerque will hear more presentations along the same line in East Falmouth today at a public hearing and discussion. The co-sponsors of the meeting said one important facet of revamping the water management system is public outreach.

“Part of the role of the commission is to bring the toilet talk into the mainstream,” said Smith.

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