Cape Cod homeowners weigh costs of septic system regulatory changes

“Visitors to our home note the contamination and the smell and have renamed the bay ... ‘Pooponesset Bay.’”

On Cape Cod and in many other places, poorly maintained and aging septic systems are a primary cause of the nitrogen pollution that plagues coastal ecosystems.

A state plan to reduce nitrogen pollution in coastal areas by targeting septic systems met mixed responses at a public hearing Thursday, as residents generally supported the mission but disagreed over who should bear the costs.

The proposed regulatory changes could require thousands of impacted homeowners to upgrade their septic systems over the coming years, unless their community opts to obtain a watershed permit and create a long-term plan to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering bays and estuaries.

Cape Cod water quality

Nitrogen pollution can come from agricultural and stormwater runoff, but septic systems are a significant source, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Too much nitrogen can result in rapid algae growth, leading to declining water quality and impacting plants and animals.


“Visually, the water is usually less than translucent, smells, and is clogged with a vast field of dying red and green algae,” said Gary Markowitz, co-founder of Cape Cod advocacy group Save Our Shoestring.

“Visitors to our home note the contamination and the smell and have renamed the bay in conversation — of course, in humor — ‘Pooponesset Bay,’” he shared. “It’s not very funny living there, and it’s going to affect our home valuation when it comes to resale.”

The regulations are expected to go into effect in early 2023, at which point 30 watersheds on Cape Cod will be designated Nitrogen Sensitive Areas (other watersheds in southeastern Massachusetts and the islands could be tapped later on).

If their community does not seek a watershed permit, septic system owners in those areas would be required to upgrade or replace their system within five years.

Cost concerns

Falmouth Town Counsel Maura O’Keefe asserted that the few local vendors able to install the approved systems would quickly become backlogged with requests. At that point, she said, homeowners would demand that towns obtain a watershed permit, making the permit no longer a choice, but a de facto requirement.


O’Keefe said Falmouth would not be able to meet nitrogen reduction requirements within the permit’s 20-year lifespan, which she called “comically insufficient.” Even coming close to compliance would likely bankrupt Falmouth along the way, she said.

Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, contended that the watershed permit framework affords towns the time and flexibility to implement their chosen solutions, “but not to any longer seek to avoid their obligations to act.”

“We’ve known about this problem for decades,” he added. “This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is not a last minute thing that came out of the blue.”

While financial assistance for septic system upgrades is available through the Community Septic Management Program, some homeowners were still wary of the cost. 

William O’Connell said he and his wife are both retired and on fixed incomes, “And when we hear that the potential cost of upgrading or installing a new system can range from $30,000 to $35,000, it’s a real concern to us.”

Brewster homeowner Frank King expressed similar concerns, though he said he supported keeping bodies of water as clean as possible. 


“My understanding is that to comply with these new requirements can run as high as $35,000 in expense,” he said. “And if that is correct, you are looking at a massive protest on the scale of another Boston Tea Party, in my opinion.”

Will there be enough supply?

Another sticking point was the potential shortage of compliant septic systems and the labor needed to install them.

“There are not enough professionals and/or groups on the Cape that could provide the amount of resources and support that is required to make this all happen,” said Samantha Nikula, who said she works for a construction company on the Cape. 

Nearly every community affected by the proposed regulations has raised concerns about shortages of supplies and installers, a MassDEP spokesperson told Boston.com. 

“It is a concern MassDEP acknowledges and shares,” the agency said in an email. “Operating under the Watershed Permit on a 20-year timeframe should minimize the potential impacts from these shortages and assist with implementation of IA [innovative/alternative] systems.”

Comprehensive planning is the only sensible way to solve nitrogen pollution, argued Korrin Petersen from the Buzzards Bay Coalition.

“Homeowners should be urging their town officials to apply to do the necessary planning, which will provide the right mix of solutions to meet water quality standards,” Petersen said. 

She acknowledged the problem will be an expensive one to fix, whether the cost falls to individual homeowners or communities. Given the time-sensitive availability of funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Petersen urged immediate action.


“We want to leave the next generation with better waters than what we have today and we need to take action now,” she said.


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