This spring, town meetings in the four Cape Cod communities in the Pleasant Bay watershed – Brewster, Chatham, Harwich and Orleans – approved articles that direct each town’s board of selectmen to create an intermunicipal agreement for a first-of-its-kind state watershed permit from the Department of Environmental Protection.

The intermunicipal agreement and final application documents were sent to MassDEP on June 25, the culmination of a process of the towns and Pleasant Bay Alliance working with MassDEP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Cape Cod Commission on the pilot project.

Carol Ridley, coordinator and project leader for the Pleasant Bay Alliance, which was created by the four towns in 1998, said the permit will allow the towns to use nontraditional technologies to remove nitrogen from water and receive nitrogen removal credits from MassDEP.

The methods – some of which are already being implemented – include using shellfish to filter nitrogen, reusing water in irrigation systems, reactive filtering barriers, and nitrogen trading among the towns.

The single permit will also make the towns more competitive for low-cost, interest-free or low-interest financing for their nitrogen removal efforts, Ridley said.

Chatham Natural Resources Director Dr. Bob Duncanson said his town, in 2012, was the first community in the state to qualify for an interest-free loan from the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust to help finance the town’s $14.5 million first phase of sewer work. He said the new permit will make the towns even more competitive when applying for similar funding.

The sewer work is based on Chatham’s 30-year master wastewater management plan, completed in 2009, which calls for sewering almost the entire community.

Duncanson said that all four towns need to do their part to clean up Pleasant Bay. As Chatham embarked on its ambitious sewering plan, some in town expressed concerns about spending millions of dollars on a sewer system if other communities did not take their share of the responsibility.

“We have some assurance now through the watershed permit that our neighbors are going to do their part,” he said. “That gives Chatham taxpayers a better sense of security.”

Each town had already worked on plans to address its share of nitrogen pollution entering the bay. The Pleasant Bay Alliance took those four plans, identified gaps and overlaps, and created a coordinated, cost-effective and faster way to reach collective goals.

A study completed by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, in coordination with Pleasant Bay Alliance, concluded that approximately 40,000 pounds of nitrogen enters the bay each day, and that it must be cut by 36 percent to meet regulatory thresholds set by MassDEP. Orleans is responsible for 39 percent of the nitrogen, Harwich for 25 percent, Chatham for 23 percent, and Brewster for 13 percent, according to the study.

It would be difficult and cost-prohibitive to build out a traditional sewer system in rural Brewster, where septic systems are the norm, according to the town’s natural resources director, Chris Miller. Septic systems account for 75 percent of the nitrogen that feeds into the bay.

Brewster is focusing on creating a bylaw that would require a newer form of septic system to reduce nitrogen amounts. Miller said the town would aim to phase out older systems over the next two decades.

Lawn and golf course fertilization accounts for 16 percent of the nitrogen flowing into the bay, according to the Estuaries Project analysis. With two 18-hole municipal golf courses, Brewster adopted “fertigation.” Deep wells capture the water used to irrigate the golf courses. That water picks up nitrogen not taken in by the grass and plants, so reusing it for irrigation allows the town to reduce the amount of fertilizer used on the courses.

Orleans plans to continue expanding its shellfish aquaculture pilot project, which won a Municipal Innovation Award at the MMA Annual Meeting & Trade Show in January. The project, entering its third year in Lonnie’s Pond, which feeds into the bay, uses 100 floating bags that hold an average of 5,000 oysters and hard-shelled clams that consume nitrogen.

Orleans Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey said traditional sewering would be cost-prohibitive in Orleans. The town is also examining whether permeable reactive barriers that filter nitrogen would be an option in the future.

For more information, contact Carol Ridley at 508-430-2563 or info@pleasantbay.org, or visit pleasantbay.org.

Written by Daniel DeMaina, Associate Editor