Massachusetts Estuaries Project: Guidelines for Multi-town Collaboration

To restore the health of their estuaries, collaboration among all the towns in the watershed is important.

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An estuary is a natural system that does not follow town boundaries. With the exception of Nantucket, every town in the Massachusetts Estuaries Project area shares at least one estuary with one or more other towns. To restore the health of their estuaries, collaboration among all the towns in the watershed is important for several reasons:

  • Nitrogen pollution does not follow town boundaries. It comes from many different sources and from the entire watershed, including areas that don't border the water. Septic systems, treatment plants, stormwater and fertilizer from virtually anywhere in MEP towns add to nitrogen pollution in their estuary.
  • Watershed-based calculations are the most accurate way to factor in all point and nonpoint sources of pollution.
  • Looking at solutions over the entire watershed is the best way to identify the most cost-effective and environmentally-effective plan to restore the estuary. The most practical solutions are likely to be shared actions by towns, paid for by everyone in the watershed.
  • All important stakeholders need to be at the table when decisions are make, regardless of their town or where they live: on the water, near a stream or pond, or in upland areas.

Building a collaborative relationship across town borders and among diverse interest groups is an opportunity for towns to think and act differently. In some estuaries, they will be able to take advantage of existing watershed groups, and in others, can build on already successful intermunicipal relationships, for example, around a shared school or wastewater treatment facility. Nonprofit groups, regional organizations and individual facilitators can help towns work on these shared issues.

MassDEP's 2003 Implementation Guidance,"Embayment Restoration and Guidance for Implementation Strategies", outlines a number of areas that towns need to address in the restoration process. These guidelines offer input in three additional areas:

  • Coordinating planning and implementation
  • Deciding the most cost-effective and environmentally appropriate restoration scenario
  • Sharing the cost of restoration among towns

Coordinating Planning and Implementation

A watershed-wide nitrogen management plan is the ideal option for coordinated planning and implementation. It might be structured in several ways:

  • A watershed-based Plan written specifically for a group of towns.
  • One document that pulls together relevant information from plans of several towns.
  • One town's plan that addresses watershed-wide issues and contains input from other towns in the watershed.

For example, six communities in the Assabet River watershed, each of which is developing its own plan, formed a Consortium to study common wastewater issues and prepare one coordinated plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in the Assabet River. Individually, the towns had lower priority points for SRF funding. However, their joint proposal ranked higher on the priority list, and MassDEP awarded SRF funds for both the local and basin-wide plans.

Although shared planning is easiest for towns all starting their planning at the same time, most MEP towns are at different stages of planning. In these cases, coordination is even more important, and towns can take a number of steps:

Begin talking together early in the process, by jointly reviewing the MEP Technical Reports and TMDL, discussing shared concerns, and even submitting joint comments on the Technical Report. Discussions and decisions about cost-sharing can happen regardless of whether towns are in the formal planning process

  • Schedule inter-municipal briefings on the MEP and Technical Reports.
  • Discuss nitrogen attenuation options and request model runs based on input from all towns.
  • Coordinate formal planning and construction schedules where possible, or at least share information on individual plans.
  • When formal planning begins, appoint Citizens' Advisory Committee (CAC) members from other towns that share the estuary, as Mashpee has done.
  • Create a joint written record of mutual decisions and a schedule of key points down the road at which coordination will be needed.
  • For towns planning to include a number of estuaries in a town-wide plan, pursue implementation in watersheds solely within their town boundaries and hold off on final decisions in shared watersheds.

Towns ready to move ahead with planning and implementation don't have to wait until all towns in the estuary are ready to begin planning. Towns that do not collaborate in the planning process may find that their options down the road are limited by decisions made by the towns that began working together early in the process.

Deciding the most cost-effective and environmentally appropriate restoration plan

There are many ways to meet an estuary's nitrogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The most cost-effective and environmentally appropriate restoration plan will depend on the many local factors documented in each Technical Report. These factors include how much nitrogen comes from septic and on-site systems as well as from treatment plants, stormwater, and fertilizers, the extent of natural attenuation, and local geography and hydrodynamics.

As a starting point for local discussion of restoration alternatives, each estuary's Technical Report includes one hypothetical scenario that estimates how much nitrogen from septic systems would need to be removed from the watershed in order to meet the nitrogen TMDL and biological thresholds. This hypothetical scenario is not a recommendation by SMAST or MassDEP, nor does it have the level of detail needed for facilities planning. That's why towns will use additional modeling during their planning to evaluate the details of the many possible ways to reduce nitrogen and meet the TMDL.

It is premature for MassDEP to decide solutions a town or towns should use to meet the estuary TMDL, for several reasons:

  • The Technical Report scenario is a hypothetical scenario, and the approach it uses may not be the most cost-effective one when all options are studied.
  • An accurate and fair calculation of load reductions depends upon information and decisions that only towns can provide: future land use and pace of development, land banking efforts, and other nitrogen reduction solutions that towns may want to pursue. For any reduction scenario, the relevant variables for each town must be combined and their interactions modeled to determine if the TMDL is achieved. Towns are likely to need multiple rounds of modeling to determine and agree on the best scenario for their estuary.
  • Different scenarios will likely apportion load reductions in very different ways among subwatersheds and towns. Towns are the best decision-makers as to which of the many possibilities is most practical and acceptable.

Sharing the cost of restoration among towns

Agreement among towns on how to share the cost of restoration is a decision that MassDEP urges towns to make separately from their consideration of the most cost-effective and environmentally appropriate restoration scenario. MassDEP offers the guidelines below for this decision and will meet with towns to talk about the pros and cons of particular cost-sharing methods, but the decisions on cost-sharing will be made by towns themselves.

Guideline #1: Agree first on criteria for choosing a cost sharing method. Fairness, logic, transparency, and public acceptability are some of the key principles to consider in evaluating different methodologies.

Guideline #2: Start with information provided by MEP. As the Technical Report for each estuary is completed, the MEP will calculate the amount of nitrogen that originates in each town, based on current land use loadings and assumptions of natural attenuation contained in the Technical Report. Sharing costs among towns based on their relative share of nitrogen contributions to the estuary is a reasonable starting point for local discussions, but is not the only method that could be used.

Guideline #3: Consider other cost-sharing methods. Some other factors to consider are relative acreage, population, tax base, location near the estuary, and the percentage reductions required. Towns may want to combine more than one factor into a cost-sharing formula. Some examples of cost allocation and sharing follow:

  • The Blackstone Lakes (Massachusetts) TMDL for phosphorus is based on an equal percentage reduction in contributions by nonpoint sources.
  • Stakeholders in the Chesapeake Bay based their allocations on both contributions of nitrogen and benefit from restoration. A full description of the Chesapeake decisions and decision-making process can be found on their website.
  • Equal yearly percentage reductions in nitrogen were used to allocate loads to the 79 wastewater treatment plants in the Long Island Sound Study.
  • The MWRA allocates its capital costs with a formula that combines population and three-year average water flows.

Some MEP towns have also discussed build-out loads as a basis for cost sharing. This is possible, but it is essential to remember that any projections of growth and additional nitrogen loadings will need to take account of the very large reductions in current nitrogen loading needed to meet TMDLs - between 60-80% of current loads in most estuaries. A majority of the nitrogen in MEP watersheds comes from septic systems.

Guideline #4: Consider trading programs. Once towns have agreed on their preferred restoration strategy and a cost-sharing formula, towns can consider intermunicipal and inter-facility water quality trading. For example, the most cost-effective scenario for the watershed as a whole may concentrate wastewater treatment facilities in a few subwatersheds closest to the estuary. But all towns whose wastewater is treated at the plant can share in the costs of the facility based on the formula they have accepted. Water quality trading is covered in more detail in a separate section of this Guidance, as well as in EPA's Water Quality Trading Toolkit for Permit Writers.

Additional Resources   for Sharing the cost of restoration among towns

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