Tisbury’s wastewater issues have recently been in the news and I wish to share some thoughts as to a possible way forward.

The plant’s remaining capacity has been stated as anywhere from 750 gallons per day to 3,500 gallons per day. Some flow must be reserved for those in the original district who have paid betterments and are still eligible to tie into the system.

Moreover, there are still requests from those already on the system for additional flow to allow change of use or new use. As noted in a recent Gazette article, when the plant exceeds 80 per cent of its permitted flows, it is mandated to begin planning for expansion. We have arrived at that point. The additional flow that was approved at last year’s town meeting is already dedicated to meet needs in the new State Road District and cannot readily be reassigned elsewhere.

Presently, we are uncertain about what the true use has been due to the pandemic (high wastewater users like restaurants and hotels are not operating at capacity) nor have we established guidelines reflecting our priorities for allocation of wastewater resources going forward. But answers are in the offing. The town is currently undertaking two initiatives that will inform our ultimate wastewater needs. One is the development of a master plan, a public process initiated by the planning board that, if funded at this year’s town meeting, will begin in the fall. The second is the development of a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan currently underway in the Water Resources Committee assisted by the consulting firm, Environmental Partners.

Both emphasize public input and will be open and transparent in establishing the town’s wastewater needs (including affordable housing, public health, environmental needs and commercial development). This is intended for a planning horizon of twenty years.

The town should invest its time and effort now in these initiatives before handing out however much or little remains of our flow and running the risk of inadvertently triggering a mandate to spend scarce taxpayer resources to expand the plant before we’ve had time for this planning process to conclude.

The strategic use of alternative systems retrofitted to existing Title 5 septic systems could be a more affordable part of the solution. With looming commitments of $56 million for the school, and a further unknown share of the regional high school repairs, taxpayers can ill afford an in excess of $20 million requirement to increase the capacity of our sewer plant.

We must be smart about meeting our wastewater needs and not squander this opportunity.

While on the subject of wastewater planning, in the future Tisbury might wish to consider reorganizing the wastewater department as part of the water department as is done in many towns in the state or as a stand-alone independent entity. Like the water department, it is an enterprise system that must have its own budget separate from the general funds of the town.

Water and sewer operators work under the same or similar licenses and have similar expertise. Currently, sewer billing originates in the water department based on water meter readings. When Tisbury experienced the loss of its wastewater superintendent, the water superintendent successfully oversaw both departments.

Operating under an independently elected board like the water department would promote professional oversight of two highly specialized and indispensable services of the town.

Melinda Loberg is a former member of the Tisbury select board.