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Westport River nitrogen fix: Sewers, better septics, ‘clusters’

Up next: Could cluster systems work for Cadman’s Neck, The Let?

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 10/30/20

WESTPORT — Saving the Westport River from nitrogen overdose will require better septic systems, sewers and ‘cluster’ systems in some places, along with continued improvement of …

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Westport River nitrogen fix: Sewers, better septics, ‘clusters’

Up next: Could cluster systems work for Cadman’s Neck, The Let?


WESTPORT — Saving the Westport River from nitrogen overdose will likely require better septic systems, sewers and ‘cluster’ systems in some places, along with continued improvement of farming techniques, the Planning Board told selectmen last Monday.

The Planning Board was there to report on a study and the document it produced — the Targeted Integrated Water Management Plan, a list of actions that scientists say can bring the waterway back to good health.

Selectmen then voted unanimously to support the planners’ next recommended step — endorsing a $50,000 study into whether small shared waste systems might work for some of the 10 to 12 residential clusters located along the shores of the river’s East Branch.  Examples offered were Cadman’s Neck and The Let.

The Buzzards Bay Coalition will conduct the “clusters” study and pay for it using, in part, money from the Westport Fishermen’s Association and donations in memory of the late Jack Reynolds, a leader of efforts to sound the alarm for Westport’s dying salt marshes.

In another unanimous vote, selectmen voted “general support” for the Board of Health’s focus on pushing advanced septic systems, especially for new construction, that are more effective at removing nitrogen from the watershed. The BOH is also urging replacement of the town’s several hundred remaining cesspools with septic systems. A hearing on these proposals is scheduled for October 29.

Healing a ‘super-fertilized’ river

“This is the culmination of a decades long process for dealing with the nitrogen pollution in the Westport rivers and the watershed,” said Planning Board Chairman James Whitin.

Prepared with research and reports done by two engineering firms, Kleinfelder and Pare, along with work by Westport organizations including the Westport River Watershed Alliance, and the Buzzards Bay Coalition, the work has focused primarily on the river’s East Branch, where nitrogen overload issues have been especially severe.

“It looks overwhelming,” Mr. Whitin said of the problem, but, referencing the old saw, “it’s like, ‘How do you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time.’” The report is lengthy, he said, but he urged residents to at least read the executive summary which is posted on the town website.

Robert Daylor, who was charged with “shepherding” the Water Management Plan project along for the Planning Board, offered a 25-minute summary of the project that was funded by Town Meeting voters in 2018. The final result, he said, is the combination of a comprehensive update of the watershed’s conditions, water quality studies done over many years, public input gathered at four hearing, and production of a “plan for the way forward.”

The river’s symptoms include the loss of sea grasses, collapse of marshes (an alarming condition to which Mr. Reynolds repeatedly called attention), and algae growth, “all from super-fertilization of the river.” Slides showed test results at locations up and down the East Branch; highest nitrogen readings were consistently at the Old County Road site.

All of that nitrogen has a number of sources, primarily agriculture (whose contribution is on the decline due partly to improved practices), residential septic systems and cesspools (increasing as aging systems fail and new homes are built), and airborne sources such as power plant emissions delivered via rainfall (these are on the decline as coal-fired plants such as that at Brayton Point are shut down).

Some of the nitrogen is beyond Westport’s control, coming from upstream in the watershed — Fall River, Dartmouth and Freetown. These sources are better controlled, he said since large swaths of that land are protected open spaces, and Dartmouth has been installing sewers in a number of watershed area neighborhoods.

“Luckily, most of the watershed outside of Westport is in natural conservation areas,” he said.

Although the situation is dire, Mr. Daylor said “There is hope,” and there are signs that the river is improving due to agricultural efforts and improved air quality.

Possible solutions, cluster systems

The plan points to a variety of steps for Westport to consider, Mr. Daylor said.

Sewering sections along the Route 6 corridor, connected to Fall River, already exists in places and should be expanded to include a number of densely built neighborhoods with inadequate septic systems or cesspools — estimated cost $3.55 million, an amount that would provide sufficient capacity for future growth.

The plan also offer suggestions for dealing with the dozen or so compact neighborhoods along the East Branch, some that started as summer cottages or camps on small lots but have since become mostly year-round houses.

“Could we build a cluster system?” Mr. Daylor asked, one that feeds to a community treatment or septic system or to an extended sewer line. 

That is what the Buzzards Bay Coalition will now study, with likely focus on Cadman’s Neck and possibly The Let.

If found to be practical, such systems could be funded by one of several methods: Handled by the neighborhood itself with a private system, a private-public shared effort, or a public system built by the town.

“The solution is not brain surgery,” Mr. Whitin concluded. It is either do cluster systems, or individual advanced systems or do sewers. “We are not the only community that has faced these questions.”

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