With town meeting fast approaching on May 6 and the chemical 1,4 Dioxane oozing into private wells near the town landfill, Eastham's water question might be the hottest thing in town.
Monday night, residents filled the parking lot and overflowed meeting rooms at the Four Points Sheraton. More than 250 people gathered to see what State Senator Dan Wolf, State Rep. Sarah Peake, and others had to say about economic issues facing this town on the Lower Cape - the only town in the region without a municipal water supply.
The cheese stands alone?
Although the chemical has been detected in just one small area of town, it brings to the surface issues that have long been debated in Eastham. Public water has appeared before Town Meeting multiple times ... and failed.
Responding to an audience question read by moderator Florence Seldin from the League of Women Voters, Panelist Tom Cambareri, Cape Cod Commission Water Resources Manager, said that among the Commonwealth's 371 towns, only 75 lack public water. Most of those are located in the Berkshires.
Cambareri then reminded the group that a 1978 regional planning document recommended that Eastham develop and implement a public water supply.... and that Provincetown, Hyannis, and others took on the task around the turn of the last century -- as in 1900.
"It's better to plan ahead for what you'll need than to react," he said, slightly chastising the town for not acting on an issue that has been well-documented for more than 30 years. "But at least there has been planning. It's just never been implemented," he said.
More than households
Wolf noted that the issue in play doesn't impact only a few personal wells. The state becomes interested, he said, because the town could be looking at questions of public health - including the health of students in a regional school, and the health of visitors to the National Seashore.
Although the chemical drip shows up on only a handful of wells, it ought to be sounding a very loud wake up cry. "Not to be overly dramatic," said Wolf, "But people don't go to vacation at Love Canal."
In response to another written question asking about the economic consequence of doing nothing at all, he noted that there will be consequences -- and they will impact real estate values, business, and tourism. "This is going to cost one way or the other," he said.
Following the dollar
Without money, however, nothing will happen. The focus of the conversation on Monday fell into financial and economic strategies.
Peake said that three weeks ago Eastham water was an Eastham question, but after a reach out from Eastham Town Administrator Sheila Vanderhoef, it quickly escalated.
"She called and said the water tested positive for Dioxane and she needed our help in dealing with the state to see what solutions we could find," said Peake, while Wolf and the other panelists nodded in agreement.
"We've started turning over all these rocks and talking to people," noted Peake "and some ideas started bubbling up."
Key among these is a proposal to amend the drinking water revolving fund to allow for 0 percent borrowing over 30 years, an approach which could dramatically trim the annual costs of an infrastructure investment that may run $100M to build.
The process toward this is underway on both sides of the Statehouse, with hopes that it could potentially be in place at the start of the next fiscal year, July 1. However, even if this fails, the delegation says it will keep trying different approaches to find financing support.
Congressman Bill Keating aide Stephanie Cox added that the Congressman's office was also looking for any and all federal funding opportunities, small and large and that they had already contacted USDA, USGS, and EPA, all of whom view Dioxane as a contaminant of emerging concern.
"The timing on this couldn't be worse, though," said Cox, pointing to federal budget crisis and mandated budget cuts.
What about the Seashore?
With the National Seashore such a large player in the area - and one that would be dramatically impacted by a growing drinking water problem - it was only a natural for the audience to ask what role the Seashore could and should have.
However, with the looming federal budget-driven potential shut down of the Province Lands Visitors Center and several beaches this summer, those questions remained largely unanswerable.
Peake did note that the Seashore had been engaged in discussion and had expressed its interest in finding a solution. "The Seashore has to be part of the conversation," she said firmly.
A question about what defines an "economically disadvantaged community" drew a few laughs from the audience at first, until Wolf aide Seth Rolbein explained that the category was based on median community income - and that North Eastham and possibly all of Eastham fell within that category.
Economic disadvantage is one of the features that could trigger a lowered interest rate and longer loan term - which could in turn save Eastham significant dollars.
Betterments out with Bath Water
Betterments - an assessment attached to a property with a multi-year repayment period - had been proposed in previous years as a funding mechanism. Provincetown used betterments to pay for its sewer infrastructure.
When a written question asked for an explanation of what the term "betterments" means, Eastham Select Board Chair Aimee Eckman briefly interjected with a clear statement: Betterments are off the table and will not be part of the funding mechanism for municipal water proposed at this year's Town Meeting.
Rowing the same way
Questions about the science of water and specific plans to deal with the short and long term technical solutions are scheduled for several ongoing conversations over the next two months - and coming to consensus on these couples tightly with getting financial strategies into place.
All the panelists cautioned the audience to find solutions together and speak as one. "The solution that has everyone behind it has the best chance," said Peake.
Upcoming session on the muni water question in Eastham:
General meeting at the Sheraton Four Points
Select Board meetings, all held at town hall, duplicate meetings held at different times
For more information and full meeting listings, visit EasthamWater.com.