Massachusetts implements Watershed Permitting regulations for Cape Cod

June 28, 2023
New 20-year Watershed Permits will require septic system or wastewater management solutions to reduce nitrogen pollution.

Massachusetts officials have announced Watershed Permitting regulations to address elevated nitrogen levels in Cape Cod from through septic system or wastewater system solutions.

The discharge of excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen, primarily from septic systems has been an ongoing problem on the Cape. Elevated levels of nitrogen in waterbodies causes accelerated growth of nuisance plants, weeds, and algae that use up much of the oxygen in the water and force out indigenous fish and plant species. Waterbodies often also experience a displeasing cloudy green coloring and unpleasant smell.

“Nitrogen pollution is one of the most pressing environmental and economic problems facing Cape Cod,” said Governor Maura Healey. “I'm grateful for our administration’s partnership with Cape communities to develop an innovative path forward to restore and protect some of Massachusetts’ most precious water resources. Looking ahead, we’ll continue to build on our collaboration with Cape officials and the Legislature to ensure there is financial support as the new regulations are implemented.”

Watershed Permitting regulations are a new approach to address these challenges. The Watershed Permit is a 20-year permit that enables communities to design and implement wastewater solutions tailored to the specific watersheds and communities’ needs. Watershed Permits will enable communities to implement a range of strategies to reduce nitrogen pollution, including centralized wastewater treatment and alternative approaches, such as aquaculture, innovative and alternative septic systems, permeable reactive barrier walls, and fertilizer reduction.

Communities across the Cape have already been working on Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plans that feature a variety of nitrogen-reducing strategies.

Cape Cod communities will have two years to opt into a watershed permitting process. Under new requirements issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) on-site septic system regulations (Title 5), if communities choose not to obtain a watershed permit for a nitrogen sensitive watershed within two years, new septic systems in the watershed will be required to include enhanced nitrogen reducing treatment technology and existing systems will need to upgrade septic systems within five years.

Since MassDEP issued the draft regulations last October, the Department held five public hearings, four information sessions, held “office hours” for state and local officials and community leaders and has received more than 1,000 public comments. In response to that feedback, MassDEP made several adjustments to the draft regulations, notably:

The final regulations are focused only on Cape Cod watersheds that have been demonstrated to be impaired due to excessive nitrogen pollution, or “Natural Resource Area Nitrogen Sensitive Areas.”

The Department intends to facilitate more nutrient wastewater planning for communities off Cape Cod, enabling them to be better prepared in the near future to address nitrogen pollution to embayments and estuaries.

The final regulations provide additional time for upgrading existing septic systems.

The final regulations included provisions to provide flexibility in the Watershed Permitting process to address comments expressed by communities, including changes to streamline the transition of existing municipal wastewater plans, such as Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plans and Targeted Wastewater Management Plans, to new watershed permits.