The ‘do nothing’ option

Planning Commission considers no sewer improvements at Malletts Bay Should the town of Colchester do nothing to solve wastewater degradation and pollution in Malletts Bay? This is the question the planning commission considered at their last meeting; the fourth and final option in their search for wastewater solutions. In March the town voted against extension […]

Planning Commission considers no sewer improvements at Malletts Bay

Should the town of Colchester do nothing to solve wastewater degradation and pollution in Malletts Bay? This is the question the planning commission considered at their last meeting; the fourth and final option in their search for wastewater solutions.

In March the town voted against extension of a sewer line to East and West Lake Shore Drives, and the selectboard charged the planning commission with exploring other solutions. Throughout the summer, the board has used ‘do nothing’ as a control in considering the other options, which include land conservation, community septic, and expansion of the town sewer line. 

“Your mission was really in juxtaposition to the ‘do nothing’ approach,” said Director of Planning and Zoning Sarah Hadd. “[Your mission] was to come to the Colchester selectboard with alternatives to how to effectively address human wastewater in the Bay for all 289 properties as identified by the wastewater project so as to maintain and improve water quality in future land use and site conditions.”

Some residents see ‘do nothing’ as an opportunity to conduct more research and testing of the Inner Bay.

Jack Scully, a former selectboard member and current member of Friends of Malletts Bay, suggested installing community septic on a smaller scale than the planning commission is currently considering. “We should take East Lakeshore Drive waterside out of the equation,” he said, arguing that the town should direct money towards the stormwater utility budget instead. “We will not clean up the lake if we blow the money on a big system. In March, I think the voters saw this when they said, ‘no.’”

Other members also argued for the ‘do nothing’ option, raising questions as to whether contaminants in the bay are human-related.

However, Hadd noted that the planning commission’s charge, “implies that the existence of human wastewater in the bay is not in question,” and that, while more comprehensive monitoring would study a broader spectrum of pollutants in the lake, additional studies would only reaffirm what is already accepted: the bay has an effluent problem.

According to Hadd, the town has dealt with 18 wastewater system failures over the last 10 years, five of which occurred within the last six months. The area in question, where Friends of Malletts Bay have thrown suspicion, has two to three times the failure rate of any other area in Colchester.

While there have been calls to conduct more research, Hadd also noted that after touring septic systems across the state with the board, she was struck by how much more research Colchester has conducted than any other communities with wastewater installations. 

Amy Macrellis, a Senior Water Quality Specialist with Stone Environmental who has been retained by the Commission to assist in their process, said that in her 19 years of service in the wastewater world, it is “an exceptionally long time to not have a clear direction, even with all of the study and all of the monitoring, all of the analysis.” 

“It’s tough and you guys have put in a lot of work and effort. It’s clear that everyone cares about what’s going on in the Bay,” she continued. “And yet, at the same time, what we’re talking about are non-point sources. There is no single smoking gun. But it’s incumbent on us to make a decision with the information we have at hand.” 

Part of Scully and other member’s contentions focus on the cost—the community septic option currently clocks in at approximately $17.4 million and expansion of a sewer line could cost $14.3 million. He argues that addressing a fewer number of houses would save money.

Macrellis argued that the costs are roughly the same, especially considering maintenance and upkeep. “So if we’re talking about trying to do the best we can with what we have, the cost is not that different,” she said.

In thinking about cost, Macrellis also brought of the emotional toll on residents, recalling earlier in the summer when the planning commission spoke with a family who bought a property along the Bay, only to discover that the system had failed. “That is a real cost that can’t be measured in dollars but it can be measured in lost opportunity [multiplied by] 289. That’s tough. it’s worth thinking about as you consider a ‘do nothing’ approach. If we continue with the status quo, there’s an emotional cost that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone talk about,” she said.

The board will wrap up their search for solutions this month and present a recommendation report to the selectboard at the first meeting in November.