Here’s what we know. Falmouth Town Meeting members, our elected local legislators, will soon be asked to approve spending nearly $6 million to fund wastewater initiatives, including $4.5 million for engineering studies to link the towns near Little Pond in Falmouth Heights to our wastewater treatment facility (WWTP) in West Falmouth. We also know that on the heels of this discussion, our decision makers will be considering similar big-ticket initiatives to move forward on design for a water filtration plant, and be asked to appropriate additional big dollars to dismantle and discard the wind turbines that produce much of the power for the WWTP.
Here’s something else we know: Falmouth does not stand above its fellow Commonwealth communities as a shining star of efficiency and stellar performance when it comes to planning, constructing, and delivering public utilities. The request for millions in design funds for all of these projects, and the related and resulting hundreds – yes hundreds – of millions of dollars in construction funds, does not come with long-standing credibility and a history of flawless judgment when it comes to building and running facilities that treat and deliver water and wastewater.
The original design of the WWTP atop a glacial moraine in West Falmouth was flawed from the get-go. I’m no geologist, but I’ve seen enough huge boulders when visiting friends in West Falmouth to know that a spot where the glaciers deposited huge, house-sized rocks is probably not the best place to build a facility that will need to discharge lots of water to percolate into the sandy Cape soil. Local legend persists that the designers simply never asked, and certainly never dug deep enough to see the problem that lay beneath. That’s old news, though. Those discussions happened thirty years ago, and do not (or should not) have any bearing on today’s public utility planning. With the recent mishaps of our boil water order, the turbine saga, and now the ongoing debate on how many hundreds of millions we should spend on wastewater, though, I’m beginning to think maybe we’re jinxed. Perhaps a public utilities curse was placed on us by some vengeful spirit years ago. It’s almost as though the ghost of wastewater past is visiting us.
Other theories may apply. Perhaps our elected and appointed leaders, and we taxpayers, are unwitting participants in some cruel, farcical hoax designed to entertain observers. I’m waiting for Ashton Kutcher to pop out at a Selectmen’s meeting with a huge smile and a guffaw to let us know we’ve been punked.
Another more likely theory is that we just need to do a better job planning, designing, discussing, selling, and building our public infrastructure. We are and always have been a great road town. Generations of pavement gurus, from Manny Rapoza, to Nate Ellis, to Bill Owen, skillfully managed nearly 400 miles of public and private roads. The same stellar history – most notably our recent history - is not in place with our infrastructure related to our drinking water and its dirtier cousin. Who among us doesn’t still hesitate just a bit and sniff a glassful of water before taking a drink?
Selectman Brent Putnam was on to something when he suggested that maybe we want to see the results of the $2 million we spent last year on innovative solutions to wastewater before we dedicate millions more to a predetermined solution. Why not take a little more time and get it right? If that approach was taken before building a WWTP on top of a glacial moraine, the entire discussion of wastewater today might be completely different.
The volunteers, employees and consultants involved in the whole scope of current projects on the horizon, particularly the wastewater planning volunteers, have pored over hundreds of documents, scores of data, and analyzed a myriad of possibilities in getting us to this point. The volunteer hours and expertise brought to the table is worth millions. Literally. They deserve nothing less than our abundant gratitude and praise.
Don’t we owe it to those invaluable volunteers to get it right?