Misconceptions about Rehoboth outfall abound

July 25, 2014

Beginning in 2002, I and many others participated in public discussions at the Center for the Inland Bays, the City of Rehoboth Beach, and other venues concerning the rerouting of Rehoboth’s wastewater effluent from the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and nearby Rehoboth Bay to an alternative discharge site. The nutrients from Rehoboth’s wastewater stream had been found to contribute to the degradation of Rehoboth Bay.

There were a number of alternative disposal strategies. Each was evaluated by the city, its engineers, independent scientists, and the interested public using environmental, engineering, and financial criteria. The proposed ocean outfall was selected as the best alternative based on all of these criteria! Since then, the city and its consultants have further studied all of the alternatives, and no better plan has been proposed.

It is a disgrace that the city’s decision is still being questioned by people who should know better ,and by people who have failed to properly inform themselves of the long history of this plan and its review. The failure of outgoing DNREC Secretary Colin O’Mara to issue permits for the ocean outfall in a timely fashion is a significant blot on his otherwise meritorious record on behalf of the State of Delaware.

Dian Taylor’s letter of July 14 and other recent letters in the Cape Gazette merely contribute to the misunderstandings and misrepresentations surrounding the issues of wastewater disposal in coastal Delaware.

Fact: There is no financial value to wastewater in Sussex County!

There are places in the world where water is a limiting resource and has real financial value, but not in southern Delaware. Each year, Delaware receives adequate rainfall (45 inches per year) to replenish the water table that was depleted in the previous year (13-15 inches per year). Groundwater is abundant and largely free to farmers and the construction of spray irrigation systems for farmers is subsidized by the State of Delaware.

During Rehoboth’s planning and evaluation process, we found few farmers (and none nearby) who were interested in giving up profitable agricultural land for spray irrigation of wastewater since wastewater disposal often requires water application rates exceeding that needed for optimum crop growth, thus potentially reducing farmers’ income.

Recent changes in state regulations that Ms. Taylor addressed have no impact on the value of wastewater. While Delaware groundwater may be “precious” in the abstract, it still has no real financial value. If it did, Artesian Resources would be offering to pay the City of Rehoboth Beach for its wastewater and it is not.

Fact: Wastewater disposed at sea is not “lost!”

All of the water that falls on Delaware and is not immediately evapotranspired is ultimately discharged to the sea. It does not matter whether it passes through the Rehoboth Wastewater Treatment Plant, Artesian Resources’s spray irrigation facility, or through natural surface and groundwater pathways: it ends up in the same place!

Fortunately, the water discharged to the sea is replenished annually by rainfall. This is the magic of the hydrological cycle! As long as annual groundwater recharge exceeds annual consumptive use (removal from groundwater), as it does in southern Delaware, there is no problem with water supply. Therefore, the choice between disposal options could be made based on environmental criteria rather than water supply.

The City of Rehoboth, after exhaustive study, made a reasonable decision to discharge highly treated wastewater to the ocean to minimize the installation, operation, and maintenance costs of the disposal now and in the future. Fortunately, this decision is consistent with the recommendation made on the basis of environmental criteria.

Fact: Beach contamination is a stormwater, not a wastewater issue!

The beaches that have had high microbial levels in Rehoboth Beach are not near any source of municipal or domestic wastewater. The high bacterial levels reported in the NRDC Superstar Beaches report are due to people, animals and stormwater management. This is an independent problem that requires resolution, but not one associated with current or future wastewater disposal.

For comparison, the beaches in South Bethany that are adjacent to the existing ocean outfall from the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility have had no recent microbial contamination issues and still draw visitors to the region during the “beach months.”

In summary, the ocean outfall is good for Rehoboth Beach and Delaware because it will have minimal to no environmental impacts. In addition it will have low and predictable upkeep costs into the future. This will permit the City to tackle other environmental issues, such as beach contamination.

It is the responsibility of the City of Rehoboth to identify the wastewater disposal method that best meets the needs of its taxpayers and the environment and it has done so. The State of Delaware has failed in its responsibility to improve water quality in the Inland Bays by not issuing permits in a timely fashion and has put the city under legal pressure as a consequence.

The required permits should be issued now and the state should take action to mitigate the legal and construction-delay costs for the city, if any.

William Ullman
Professor of Marine and Geological Sciences
University of Delaware
Former Chair
Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee
Center for the Inland Bays

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