'Ocean Outfall' Proposal Raises Concerns

The proposed “ocean outfall” for treated wastewater arouses concerns about project funding and the environmental impact.

I‘m gazing at the ocean at Deauville Beach on a picture-perfect pre-summer’s day—absolutely beautiful, but a sort of reverse inspiration. I’m questioning the wisdom of allowing municipalities to solve some environmental issues on their own while wondering what the responsibilities of state regulators are when city leaders fail, because something is at risk here.

The situation is this:

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Since 1998, Rehoboth Beach has been under a court order to stop discharging treated wastewater into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, a measure required by the state and federal governments to improve the health of the Inland Bays. The city considered a handful of alternatives, then presented them to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control five years ago. The department failed to decide which option was best, so, with a June 2018 deadline looming, Rehoboth chose what seemed to be the easiest, least expensive option: construction of an “ocean outfall”—basically a pipe from the treatment plant to Deauville, then 6,000 feet straight into the ocean, where it would discharge treated wastewater into the sea.

That may not be as bad as it sounds, though my gut and plenty of data from credible sources, including the federal government, tell me it is. There are certainly environmental concerns that need to be addressed.

The point here, however, is that, though DNREC finally blessed the proposal in January, after more than four years of unexplained foot dragging, the burden of paying for the $52 million project—up from the original estimate of about $25 million—belongs to Rehoboth Beach. Voters may or may not pass a referendum that would allow the city to borrow money for construction. But there is no Plan B, no contingency for meeting the court-ordered deadline, as longtime Rehoboth mayor Sam Cooper has freely admitted.

So what happens if the referendum ends up failing?

A standing-room-only crowd packed town hall on May 15 for a hearing to set the voting date. Though some complain that the city and state haven’t been transparent in their decision making about the outfall proposal, most opponents of the outfall object on either or both of two fronts: the financing, as Citizens for Rehoboth Fiscal Responsibility do, or the environmental impact.

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I have spent a good portion of my life working and playing in the Inland Bays. They are stressed. We have come far from the days when the toilets of summer cottages emptied into septic tanks that leaked and overflowed, or—here and there—flushed into pipes that led straight into the bays. Yet the sheer number of homes—year-round homes—built over the past 40 years has necessitated large sanitary sewer systems that nonetheless can’t clean everything out of our wastewater. The bays need help.

I consider our little stretch of ocean the true mother of my soul, so I want to see it protected, too. Our beaches and the quality of our ocean water consistently rank among the best in the nation. Why jeopardize something so critical to local tourism? Yet the outfall would protect the bays at the expense of the ocean, which, though far more able to absorb our insults, is still a limited resource. It seems there should be a better way.

Perhaps the most vociferous opponent to the outfall is the Delaware chapter of Surfrider Foundation. An advocacy group for beach users, it has publicized its grievances across the country and, locally, has wooed other environmental groups to its cause. Surfrider has legitimate environmental concerns. State chair John Doerfler compares plumes of effluent from the ocean outfalls of today to the clouds of chemicals from the smokestacks of 75 years ago. “Back then, we thought there was enough air to disperse it all,” Doerfler says. “We were wrong. Now look.”

Not only are we dealing with climate change—caused in part by those old smokestacks, or not, depending on your bent—chemicals spewed from outfalls elsewhere are harming aquatic life. In Florida, the impact on coral reefs and other sensitive areas has been so great that the state has ordered several municipalities to decommission their pipes. Here the concern is harm to the aquatic life of Hen and Chickens Shoals, where the outfall would terminate. Though the wastewater would be treated, the process doesn’t eliminate all heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and hormonal agents that are known to, and some suspected of, harming fish—and humans.

Not all environmental organizations have opposed the proposal. The Center for the Inland Bays points out that two similar pipes have functioned perfectly well near Bethany and in Ocean City, Md., and at much higher volume—6 million and 12 million gallons a day, respectively, compared to Rehoboth’s 1 million gallons. Still, Surfrider favors another option, land-based application of the treated wastewater, which would allow it to filter down and recharge groundwater supplies, eliminating risks to aquatic life while conserving good drinking water. Surfrider contends that the cost of land application would be comparable to that of the outfall (though that wasn’t the case when the options were studied several years ago), therefore the option should be reconsidered. Two private utility companies have even asked the city to take over land application.

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Surfrider has filed a petition with the state’s Environmental Appeals Board, contending that Rehoboth’s study of solutions to the problem was based on flawed or outdated data. The review will occur four days before the referendum in late June, though the board’s decision likely won’t be publicized until afterward, so it should have little effect on the vote. Yet the way opposition to the outfall has built over the past few weeks, it seems there is a real
possibility that the referendum could fail.

Again: What then?

The irony is that, if the environmentalists get their way, a significant environmental problem remains. No permits have been issued for construction, so regardless of the referendum’s outcome, the matter is not settled. Until it is, the bays will continue to suffer.

It seems Rehoboth is gambling on a couple of factors: either that the voters, discouraged by lack of options, will tacitly consent to the only one, regardless of its flaws, by voting to borrow the necessary funds, or that the city will eventually have to tell the courts, hey, we tried. You can’t realistically shut down our treatment plant, so let’s negotiate a new deadline.

It’s been done before, which is why the problem persists, and quite likely why it will continue.