Making Democracy Work

Water Quality Management Committee

Observer Report 2018 /2019 Observer Mariam Cronin

This report covers the period Feb 2018 to roughly Feb 2019. I have not been at many meetings since January due to a family emergency.


The Water Quality Management Committee (WQMC) is tasked with improving water quality in Falmouth's estuaries, primarily by removing nitrogen. They are responsible for developing and submitting draft comprehensive wastewater management plans required by the MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA).

  • This is a long term process with a 40 year time horizon. The focus is on addressing the most polluted south facing estuaries first, avoiding tax increases, and identifying technological advances that will minimize the need to sewer broadly. The committee is using adaptive management: test, implement, test, react.
  • The technology to remove nitrogen is either very expensive (sewering) or as yet unapproved by the state for nitrogen removal. Examples of sewer alternatives being considered are innovative advanced septic systems (IAs) capable of removing nitrogen to below 10MGN/L effluent; aquaculture; permeable reactive barriers; inlet widening/flushing. Testing of alternate technologies is well underway and some appear technically feasible in the near term.
  • The public will need to be informed and vote on the risks, costs, and timing of the unique plan proposed for each estuary. The state will have to approve the plans.

Key Initiatives

2018/19 has been a busy period. Following is a list of activities designed to show the broad scope of their initiatives.

  • Reviewed data on the estuaries' health and expanded monitoring efforts; no significant improvements seen (too early).
  • Celebrated Little Pond, Falmouth Heights and Maravista sewer projects completion. Laggard homeowners are signing up after enforcement letters.
  • Obtained Town Meeting approval for expansion of the Coastal Overlay Map.
  • Sought and obtained funding for and provided oversight of tests of alternate technologies like the West Falmouth Advanced Septic (IA) test and several aquaculture initiatives. Permeable Reactive Barrier funding remains elusive. o IA testing shows at least one system is meeting very aggressive nitrogen removal targets; median removal 76%. o Aquaculture testing still in early stages; still ironing out best practices and analyzing environmental impacts. Committee is working with Shellfish Committee to make sure nitrogen removal requirements are met.
  • Got the Landscape Association to send members a reminder about the fertilizer bylaw.
  • Met with homeowners/homeowner associations/environmental groups to update them and/or to address issues. Some notable exchanges which highlight the continued challenges:
  • Perch Pond homeowners reported that an algal bloom forced them from their homes in 2018. They want faster remediation, specifically dredging like they used to do. Current conservation rules preclude dredging. Sewers may be only real solution.
  • Oyster Pond/Tree Tops community was concerned that if their current septic system fails or they opt to put in an advanced septic (I/A), their investment will be worthless if the final management plan requires sewers. Although I/A may well be the recommendation for this area, their financial risk remains since the state has not yet approved I/A.
  • Mill Pond homeowners requested aquatic weed overgrowth mitigation. A potential detention pond upstream and potential harvesting programs were discussed; execution will require permission from other agencies and cranberry grower cooperation.
  • Shared their learning with other town committees (conservation committee, board of health, affordable housing, and shell fish advisory committee) and the selectmen.
  • Explored regional solutions with other towns or entities (like a regional supported discharge outfall at joint base Cape Cod and the multitown agreement for remediating Waquoit Bay)
  • Began preparing a required update to the comprehensive wastewater management plan (CWMP) for the south facing estuaries which will summarize the results of their research to date and recommend the next big project for 2025: sewering a portion of Great Pond. This project will require an additional discharge site: decision about the site has to be made by 2021. It is a big decision: alternatives identified to date are likely to use the full $60MM available in the 2021capital plan for waste water treatment. Selectmen need to approve the plan by September to meet the December 31, 2019 deadline of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA).
  • Began developing a draft comprehensive waste water management plan for Oyster Pond with public review meetings in December. This plan will probably be IA focused.

The Team

The Committee has 7 members appointed by the selectmen. The committee is a stable, hardworking team of knowledgeable members. Eric Turkington is Chairman, Virginia Valiela is Vice-Chair. The meetings are well managed. Members have high quality discussions. Selectman Doug Brown attends meetings and is frequently an active participant. Town employees are frequently in attendance when the agenda covers their area or responsibility (shellfish, sewer plant, and storm water). The Committee has a paid consulting firm, Science Wares, which provides technical and administrative support. Their respected consultant, Sia Karplus, died in 2018. Her detailed knowledge and enthusiasm is missed but the transition to her replacement seems to be going well. The Committee also makes heavy use of paid consultants particularly to monitor water quality or prepare technical reports. Most meetings are televised and can be watched on FCTV on demand. Although the general public is not usually in attendance, representatives of homeowners associations or interested environmental groups attend periodically. The press, particularly the Falmouth Enterprise, frequently publishes articles about the proceedings. As noted previously the committee members are hardworking, highly committed to achieving their objectives. Appointment to this committee requires many hours of work outside the formal committee meeting. They are members of working groups for this and other committees in town impacted by their initiatives, accept cross appointments to other committees (Shellfish Advisory Committee), use their credentials as scientists to help secure research funding that benefits town, sponsor warrants for town meeting.

Open Meeting Law compliance appears top of mind

Meetings are properly noticed. There was a challenge regarding accuracy of agendas that was decided in the committees favor by town counsel. Minutes are reviewed promptly and added to the town website after approval but not monthly. Recently minutes have been enhanced to include a list materials of presented at the meeting. Members show an awareness of their communication restrictions, correct each other if lapses seem imminent.

Compliance with MA section 30 B

Section 30B is becoming more top of mind as more high value contractual services are on the docket. Two examples
1. Issue arose regarding whether a multiyear contract for nitrogen monitoring was subject to section 30B. Town counsel advice was sought; they were advised that best practice would be to issue RPF. There still seems to be further work for the committee to get comfortable with RPF design and review; but the committee has been seeking town counsel and finance committee input
2. Board Members have asked for better guidance/a formal process on how to initiate, request, and pursue grants and to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Town counsel advice has been sought some of the time.

In summary, this is a hardworking, well run committee which uses strong management and scientific skills to find economically feasible solutions to removing nitrogen from our estuaries.