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May 31, 2020
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Flooding, Sea Level Rise Lead to Possible Septic Issues in Madison's Smith Bay

Published Dec. 10, 2019

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Town officials are currently assessing possible septic system issues in the Smith Bay area as concerns about coastal rise and storm water have the potential to contaminate water supplies or seep into the Long Island Sound.

Madison Director of Public Health Trent Joseph said though he has received no reports of actual contamination of water, both the low-lying geography of the area in the town’s southwest corner as well as some aging septic systems have elicited some concerns. He said that the town will potentially have more conclusive findings in the spring, when they could recommend next steps such as community wastewater or tighter regulations.

Smith Bay, which identifies a handful of streets south of Neck Road near its intersection with the Boston Post Road, was identified in Madison’s 2016 Coastal Resilience plan as an area at risk of septic system erosion due to rising sea levels as well as weather-related flooding. Recommendations for the neighborhood laid out in the plan include moving or retrofitting septic tanks, particularly properties closer to the water.

Joseph said that neighborhood has been on the town’s radar since at least 2016, when he started in his position. He said the town became more aware of potential issues as property owners discovered that their septic systems were aging, particularly as properties were bought and sold, and also as more floods have inundated the low-lying coastal area.

Though sea level rise is a consideration, Joseph said stormwater, low elevation, and poor drainage already make Smith Bay an area of potential risk.

“This is something WPCA [the Water Pollution Control Authority] and I have been discussing...what are our options for that area? Is this an area where we may want to consider other things, or more stringent stipulations or regulations, or maybe do we look for any other means of sewage disposal for that area?” Joseph said.

Joseph emphasized again that he was not ready to discuss the town’s partial findings, but said that he has already enforced more strict standards on septic tank placement than required by the state, requiring systems be elevated higher above mean high tide levels as well as keeping them further from groundwater.

In the short term, Joseph said that modern and well-maintained septic systems were perfectly capable of handling the type of conditions at Smith Bay, but he said the town would be using the findings of the ongoing assessment to possibly determine longer-term solutions for what is best in the area to avoid public health hazards or environmental contamination.

“It’s going to require continued conversation between not only myself and the chair of the WPCA, but it’s going to have to be some type of group effort—our [first] selectwoman and everybody else—there’s going to need to be a round-table...on what our options are, if that area is a high area of concern,” Joseph said.

Part of that conversation will be related to sea-level rise. The 2016 Coastal Resilience plan identified septic systems as one of the most vulnerable parts of Madison’s infrastructure. Former first selectman Tom Banisch oversaw the creation of a Coastal Resiliency Commission this past September to address and identify issues such as these.

“You’re going to get flooding when it rains,” Joseph said. “Sea level is rising not only in Madison, but everywhere.”


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