Beach lovers should support Rehoboth’s outfall plan

October 7, 2016

An anonymous and misleading advertisement that recently appeared in the Cape Gazette urges "beach lovers" to oppose the City of Rehoboth's application to move its treated wastewater discharge from its current location near the confluence of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and Rehoboth Bay to a new and more suitable location in the coastal Atlantic Ocean. The motive of the anonymous advertisers is unclear, but their recommendation is clearly faulty!

Based on years of research on the water-quality issues of our region, studies by a number of independent groups, and extensive discussions that were open to all stakeholders, the proposed ocean outfall will be good for the water quality and biological integrity of Rehoboth and Indian River bays, the economies of Rehoboth Beach and eastern Sussex County, and will have no noticeable negative environmental impacts on the nearby coastal waters.

I participated in these deliberations, and I urge the citizens of eastern Sussex County and "beach lovers" to ignore these misleading advertisements and to support Rehoboth's application to reroute their effluent.

The anonymous authors indicate that the ocean beaches of Rehoboth and Sussex County are some of the best beaches in the eastern United States, that tourism generates over $700 million for the local economy, and that the City of Rehoboth Beach proposes to construct a wastewater outfall in the coastal Atlantic Ocean. All of these statements are true.

The implication that the proposed rerouting of the wastewater will negatively impact the local economy, however, is not supported by any evidence. In fact, the City of Rehoboth Beach and its contractors have reviewed all of the data concerning these issues and agree that the City, its residents, its visitors, and the environment, will all benefit from the rerouting of the present discharge.

Wastewater being rerouted
Rehoboth's proposal does not create a new wastewater discharge, but rather reroutes their existing effluent to a more suitable discharge site. Because the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and Rehoboth Bay are shallow, poorly mixed by winds and waves, and poorly flushed by tidal currents, the city's present outfall contributes negatively to the biological integrity of these ecosystems.

Rehoboth's proposal will reduce the overall negative environmental impacts of their wastewater on Rehoboth Bay and its communities by moving their existing discharge to a nearby, but substantially better mixed and flushed, portion of the ocean. This is good for the Inland Bays, good for the residents and visitors to Rehoboth, and good for the economy of eastern Sussex County. This is why Rehoboth's proposal deserves your support.

The anonymous authors correctly indicate that the proposed ocean outfall will release "pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and other toxic materials" to the environment. All wastewater contains these substances! But the anonymous authors fail to indicate that these contaminants can build up in poorly flushed ecosystems. The proposed outfall is specifically designed and sited to maximize dispersion and flushing, and, therefore, to minimize the impacts of these contaminants on ecosystems, organisms, and people.

The anonymous authors mention a recent unintentional release of sludge from the Rehoboth Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal (see Cape Gazette of August 12, 2016) that could have been discharged to the coastal ocean. If it had been discharged to the ocean, it would have been rapidly dispersed, minimizing its environmental impact! This is one of the technical advantages of properly designed ocean discharges!

The anonymous authors cite an EPA statistic that 3.5 million people are sickened annually by sewer overflows and polluted waters. This statistic refers to illnesses related to untreated sewage and is not relevant to Rehoboth's treated wastewater stream. It is also important to note that stormwater and wastewater management are separate issues. The proposed outfall is for disposal of treated wastewater only. Rehoboth still has a stormwater management problem on its beaches that is being addressed.

Outfall vetted extensively
The anonymous authors suggest that the proposed ocean outfall is shortsighted and that other alternatives were not considered. All proposals and strategies were reviewed over a period of almost 10 years by the City of Rehoboth, the Center for the Inland Bays, the State of Delaware, and other organizations. The evaluation process was open to the public and all interested parties.

The current proposal meets the present and future needs of the City of Rehoboth Beach and the nearby communities that rely on Rehoboth for wastewater treatment and disposal, as well as the environmental goals of the State of Delaware and its residents. Contrary to the implication of the anonymous authors, ocean outfalls are an established and reliable technology that is used successfully in many regions of the world. The City of Rehoboth and their engineers and planners are the beneficiaries of this long and documented history of ocean outfalls.

The existing ocean outfall in Delaware discharges to the coastal Atlantic Ocean in front of some of the most valuable real estate and most popular beaches in Delaware. The Cape Gazette ran an excellent article on March 6, 2015, describing Sussex County's South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility and its outfall offshore of Bethany Beach.

This plant has discharged to the Coastal Atlantic Ocean since 1976, and it has had no noticeable negative impacts to the coastal waters, visitors to Bethany, or property values. Few people even know where it is located, because, like the proposed Rehoboth outfall, it discharges to a well-mixed and well-flushed region of the Atlantic Ocean.

For the reasons indicated above, I strongly support the rerouting of wastewater from the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal to the coastal Atlantic Ocean. I urge my fellow citizens of Sussex County, visitors to our beaches, and our elected and appointed representatives to vigorously support Rehoboth's application to modernize their wastewater disposal system, as outlined in their proposals.

William J. Ullman is Professor of Marine and Geological Science at the University of Delaware in Lewes

  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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