Wastewater Disposal

Wastewater and Septic System Management

Related pages:   BBNEP Nitrogen Management Page  |  2013 Nitrogen Action Plan |  Citizen Monitoring Program

Watch our Septic System Basics Slideshow: Windows Movie | Powerpoint | PDF. Produced in 1994, the slide show that highlights septic system performance and siting requirements in Massachusetts. It is still relevant today.

Sewering and Wastewater Facilities

Based on 2010 data, in the Buzzards Bay watershed, onsite septic systems serve about 52% of the parcels, and 40% of the residential units. The remaining population is served by centralized sewer systems, principally connected large municipal wastewater facilities (51,378 of 107,705 properties, or 48%, and 69,267 of 114,762 residential units, or 60% are sewered). The map below shows sewered areas of the Buzzards Bay watershed (shaded areas with dates), and the locations of sewer outfalls (red circles) and sewerage groundwater discharges (blue circles).

Larger municipal wastewater treatment facilities were identified as a management concern in the original 1992 CCMP, and remain a nitrogen management concern in the CCMP 2013 update. There are now eight publicly owned treatment works (sewage treatment facilities) in the Buzzards Bay drainage basin. Three of these facilities discharge to groundwater (Falmouth, Fairhaven-West Island, and the Massachusetts Military Reservation facilities); the others discharge to surface water.

When the CCMP was written, the biggest concern with these sewage treatment facilities rested with the New Bedford wastewater facility. This facility was poorly operating and discharged little better than “primary” level of treated effluent. In the 1990s the facility was upgraded to advanced secondary level of treatment, and this improvement, together with the elimination of dry weather discharge of sewage from New Bedford combined sewer overflows (CSOs), has resulted in dramatic improvements in water quality in outer New Bedford Harbor.

With the upgrade of the New Bedford facility in the early 1990s, attention turned to the nitrogen loading impacts of these sewage treatment facilities (combined with septic systems) on groundwater or surface water, especially those impacts to nitrogen sensitive embayments. The Wareham facility was the first to be upgraded to advanced nitrogen removal, and this upgrade was prompted by an analysis by the Buzzards Bay NEP. This facility came online about 2005 and has once of the strictest nitrogen loading limits in the Commonwealth (3 ppm between March and October). Falmouth, with a groundwater discharge, was issued a new groundwater permit in 2011, also with a 3 ppm total nitrogen discharge limit. As of 2015, Marion and Fairhaven have been issued draft permits, each with stringent nitrogen discharge limitations. Go to our Nitrogen Management webpage to learn more about this topic.

Map of the Buzzards Bay watershed showing sewered areas and major sewage discharges.

Map of the Buzzards Bay watershed showing sewered areas, and the locations of major publicly owned sewage treatment facility outfalls and groundwater discharges (red circles). Sewered areas have been assigned a date in this map. Dates prior to 1980 should be considered approximate. Early sewered areas in New Bedford have been assigned an arbitrary date of 1900.Some areas within these polygons were sewered earlier, and some later. The sewered areas on the Massachusetts Military Reservation (center-right) are approximate. This work on estimating sewer connections to parcels is underway and still in draft form. A final version is expected to be posted here in October 2015. For an explanation of the sewer history information, and how it may be used meaningfully in conjunction with year built information, go to our wastewater treatment timeline page. View a medium or large version of the map.


Municipality New Bedford Fairhaven Dartmouth Wareham Marion Falmouth
Issued Permit MA0100781 MA0100765 MA0101605 MA0101893 MA0100030 MA GWDP SE-168
Permit Data to 07 MA0100781 MA0100765 MA0101605 MA0101893 MA0100030 SE-168
Permit Data post 07 MA0100781 MA0100765 MA0101605 MA0101893 MA0100030 SE-168
permit type surface surface surface surface surface groundwater
Permitted Volume 30.0 MGD 5.0 MGD 4.2 MGD 1.56 MGD 0.5 MGD 1.0 MGD
Percent Sewered 95%? 65% 50% 40% 60% 3%
Others served Acushnet, Dartmouth Mattapoisett Bourne
Discharge Location Off Clarks Point in Buzzards Bay New Bedford Harbor (Acushnet River) Off Mishaum Point in Buzzards Bay Agawam River to Wareham River Estuary Benson Brook to Aucoot Cove Groundwater to West Falmouth Harbor
Issue date 26-Sep-08 4-Mar-03 18-Jun-09 28-Apr-08 22-May-07 15-Feb-02
Expiration date 26-Sep-13 4-Apr-05 18-Jun-14 27-Apr-13 02-Feb-12 15-Feb-03
Treatment(1) advanced secondary secondary secondary tertiary tertiary tertiary
Pre-treatment Progr.? yes No No No No No
N limit? no, report only no, report only no, report only yes, 4.0 ppm TN seasonal no, but seasonal ammonia limit yes, 3.0? ppm TN seasonal
Other Documents 2002 Wareham CWMP SEIR by CDM 2001 FEIR by Stearns & Wheler
(1) Primary treatment: Wastewater treatment process where solids are removed from raw sewage primarily by physical settling. The process typically removes about 25-35% of solids and related organic matter (BOD5).
Secondary treatment: Wastewater treatment process where oxygen-demanding organic materials (BOD) are removed by bacterial oxidation of the waste to carbon dioxide and water. Bacterial synthesis of wastewater is enhanced by injection of oxygen.
Tertiary treatment: Wastewater treatment processes designed to remove or alter the forms of nitrogen or phosphorus compounds contained in domestic sewage.There are two municipally operated community scale wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed that have been issued groundwater discharge permits. The permits are available at these links:
New Silver Beach GWDP SE0-738
Fairhaven West Island, GWDP SE2-620The Massachusetts Maritime Academy has a NPDES permit for its wastewater facility, which discharges to Buzzards Bay. The permit is available at this link: MA0024368.Check also EPA’s proposed draft Massachusetts NPDES permits to see if there are any updates to this listing.


Onsite Wastewater Systems

In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Sanitary Code (“Title 5” or 314 C.M.R.15.00), first promulgated in 1978, established the minimum requirements for the subsurface disposal of sanitary sewage. These regulations established design standards (as opposed to performance standards) for the construction of septic systems. The most important of these design standards limiting the installation of septic systems has been required setback distances from protected resources, especially the separation of the base of the system to groundwater (4 feet in most soils) and surface waters (50 feet), and the allow-able percolation rate (until recently, slower than 30 minutes per inch was allowed).

Title 5 represents a minimum standard for onsite wastewater disposal in Massachusetts. Boards of health administer most of the elements of these regulations; however, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection must approve any locally approved variances from the regulations. Besides Title 5 regulations, under Massachusetts Home Rule and Chapter 111, Section 31 of the Massachusetts General Laws, municipalities can adopt more stringent regulations to better protect public health and the environment or meet special local needs. While there have been challenges to boards of health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the rights of the Board of Health to enact more stringent local regulations.

In our original 1992 Buzzards Bay CCMP, management concerns were identified about the actual and potential impacts of Title 5 systems to water quality, the environment, and human health. The stated goal in the CCMP was to “prevent public health threats and environmental degradation from on-site wastewater disposal systems.” This was to be accomplished by

  • better enforcing the provisions contained in Title 5 regulations;
  • upgrading pre-Title 5 systems suspected of contaminating groundwater or surface waters;
  • addressing the inadequacies of Title 5 through board-of-health regulations;
  • improving the Title 5 code through recognition of nitrogen impacts, virus transport, and sensitive areas; and
  • promoting innovative technology that will reduce nitrogen.

These objectives have been partly or substantially achieved. Read our 2013 CCMP Update to learn more about what still needs to be done.

Other Buzzards Bay NEP Wastewater Related Pages

More information about what the Buzzards Bay NEP is doing to address problems with wastewater management can be found at these pages:

The Buzzards Bay NEP’s ETI Alternative Septic System Test Center Page

To help municipal boards of health better track the installation, permitting, inspection, and pumping of septic systems, the Buzzards Bay NEP conceived and paid for this septic tracking software package in the 1990s. Many towns still use the software today.


Go to our GIS page to download the BBNEP’s current sewer coverage or view this 2011 Google Earth coverage: buzzards_bay_sewered_4sep2011.kmz. Our latest coverage includes estimated dates of sewering. To understand the limitations of this data set, and to learn how it can be used in conjunction with year built data in the MassGIS Level 3 data set, go to our wastewater treatment timeline page for the Buzzards Bay watershed.




Barnstable County Alternative Septic System Technology Information Page.
Barnstable County was a partner with the Buzzards Bay NEP at the Septic System Test Center and is now the lead for the facility.

MA DEP Wastewater Page with Title 5 and Alternative system technology information.

National Environmental Service Center
“Helping America’s small communities meet their wastewater needs.”

New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, information on Innovative Technologies Page.

NSF International Wastewater Page.

Massachusetts Laws and Regulations on Title 5 Septic Systems

Massachusetts Association of Health Boards

Key EPA NPDES Permit Data and Information Sites

EPA NPDES summary site for wastewater permits in Massachusetts.

EPA ECHO website for NPDES data database query for NPDES permits (past 5 years).

Search EPA’s NPDES data individual permits (older datasets)

BBNEP 1998 Marion Wastewater Facility Correspondence