City and county must work together to improve water quality

January 4, 2022

The City of Rehoboth Beach is faced with an important decision regarding its wastewater partnership with Sussex County, and clean water hangs in the balance. The county has offered to purchase a portion of the unused capacity of the city’s ocean outfall to dispose of wastewater that is currently applied to the environmentally sensitive lands of the county’s Wolfe Neck facility. In turn, the county would allow the city to store wastewater at Wolfe Neck in the case of an emergency at the city’s treatment plant. This is a win-win deal for clean water because it utilizes available infrastructure to decrease pollution while helping to avoid damaging spills.

Since 1983, Sussex County and the City of Rehoboth Beach have benefited by sharing each other's wastewater treatment and disposal facilities. Over the years, the county has helped the city finance upgrades to its treatment plant and to build its ocean outfall, which both entities use. The ocean outfall was designed and built with plenty of extra capacity to handle more wastewater as more people moved to the area. The city selected the outfall as its preferred method of wastewater disposal because the treated wastewater is rapidly diluted in the ocean resulting in little environmental impact. 

But when wastewater is applied to the land, as it currently is at the Wolfe Neck facility, the environmental impacts are very different. Land-applied wastewater contributes to the pollution of groundwaters that feed the Inland Bays and the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. Sadly, the canal fails to meet water quality standards for nutrients, dissolved oxygen and bacteria.  

Wolfe Neck lies in the middle of a large conservation area in and around Cape Henlopen State Park; it is not a good place to dispose of wastewater. Recognizing the value of Wolfe Neck, the county has planned with the Center for the Inland Bays and state parks to plant hundreds of acres of trees here and construct miles of new hiking and biking trails. So, getting wastewater from Wolfe Neck to the outfall would be an additional boost to the water quality of the area. 

Some have alluded to the overdevelopment of the county as a reason for the city to reject the county’s offer. While overdevelopment is a problem, turning away from opportunities to clean up our shared waters is not a solution. Clean water is essential to the well being of the people of southern Delaware as well as our rivers, bays and ocean. The decisions made today will affect our water for decades, and each decision should be made with care. I encourage the city and the county to reach an agreement on expanding their partnership for clean water through shared use of the city’s outfall. 

Chris Bason
Executive director, Delaware Center for the Inland Bays
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