A recent little-noticed report about East Hampton Town’s wastewater system upgrade program deserves wider attention. Produced by the town’s water quality advisory committee, the report offered five ways to increase the rate at which property owners are signing on.
The program uses money from the community preservation fund, which was originally approved by a voter referendum in 1998 for open space, historic, and farmland preservation, and then expanded after voter approval in 2016 to allow 20 percent of proceeds to go toward water quality improvement projects.
The idea was that through rebates, property owners in priority watershed areas would line up to replace aged or failing wastewater systems, which would benefit water quality in general.
The specific target was nitrogen pollution reaching surface waters that could lead to algae blooms, but in many cases, ancient cesspools were found to be sitting in groundwater, or leaching into bays and harbors at an unacceptable rate. In laying the groundwork for the program, East Hampton Town had identified more than 19,000 septic systems, 12,500 of which are considered antiquated or failing.
The town imposed requirements for advanced wastewater treatment for most new residential construction and offered a range of sweeteners to tempt the owners of existing but inadequate systems to move to modern technology.
The town board might have meant well, but success has been slow, and participation has been less than hoped for.
To increase the rate at which homeowners join the program, the water quality committee has suggested reducing paperwork and paying installers directly, instead of expecting the property owners to lay out the cash then wait — and wait — for a rebate check to arrive. This would also be an incentive for contractors, who sometimes have had to wait months to be paid while the client sought the town rebate.
Money would also be made available for surprise costs, such as dealing with drinking water wells or in-ground oil tanks at a neighbor’s place.
Though this might sound unfair to some, the recommendations also included eliminating an income-level cap above which a property owner would be ineligible for funding. The current annual income cap is $500,000, but recognizing reality, the committee members observed that many of the house lots where septic upgrades would most benefit the environment are waterfront and owned by people earning more than that. They said that the funding should be need-neutral.
Along the same lines, the committee said that the program should no longer require an applicant to submit tax returns, which, it called a “natural barrier” to participation.
Two other improvements would be allowing septic improvement permits without a review of the entire property on the theory that a full survey and review might reveal zoning code problems. The program would also provide for occasional cost overruns if an installation proved to be more complicated and expensive than anticipated.
Some question remains about the efficacy of the septic rebate program over all, especially when it comes to nitrogen contamination. Few baseline studies have been done to provide a basis of gauging success. But at the same time, town and county officials have a hard time even describing what success would look like. Those concerns may be being dealt with, if slowly. In the meantime, targeting inadequate and failed household wastewater systems in high-priority watershed areas is something that should be encouraged, and these new ideas go a long way toward doing that.
Correction: The original print version of this editorial contained an error. The town has identified 19,000 septic systems, not 19,000 that are failing; of those 12,500 are considered antiquated or failing.