BENEATH the quaint atmosphere of this picturesque island off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is struggling with a sewer problem - a byproduct of what many see as uncontrolled growth. The state of Massachusetts issued a moratorium last month prohibiting any further hookups to the island's sewer system. State environment officials say the temporary ban was issued because the island's sewer system is nearing capacity.
``If people try to squeeze too much population growth in too small an area, ... then it causes problems,'' says William Gaughan, the state's chief regulator of water pollution control.
But the ban itself could lead to further complications. Local officials fear the ban will force land owners to install septic systems. An overabundance of septic systems on the island could contaminate the town's water supply through leakage, they say. All drinking water on the island is supplied by one aquifer.
``Everything we drink comes from the ground,'' says William Klein, Nantucket Planning Commission director. ``We have always been very concerned about the long-term cumulative effects of a reliance on septic systems.''
The pressure on the sewer system also poses a threat to the island's beaches. Inefficient and older sewer systems are becoming a serious problem for many coastal communities in the US, according to Diane Cameron of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In some systems, untreated sewage and storm-drain runoff flow through the same pipes. Such a system can easily overflow during rainstorms and the sewage can spill into beach areas. Although Nantucket doesn't have a combined sewer-overflow system, state environment officials are concerned the island's primitive system could eventually cause sewage to flow into coastal waters and beach areas.
Located 25 miles south of Cape Cod, the island beckons thousands of tourists and summer visitors each year. During the summer, its population swells to around 40,000 from its 7,000 year-round total.
The flood of tourists has triggered a real estate boom that has burdened local services, including the sewer system. A plan to replace the systems with two modern sewage plants, just now getting under way, has been in the works for a number of years. One of the new plants is targeted for completion in two years.
But state officials worry that the first plant will be handling too much sewage by the time it is built. Their hope is that the temporary ban on new sewer hookups will send a message to islanders to curb the amount of permits they approve in the future.
Although Nantucket residents are upset about the ban, it didn't come as a surprise, according to Nancy Sevrens, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
``Everyone is kind of tiptoeing around ... and then the state all of a sudden said, `You're dumping too much stuff in there. Cut it out,''' she says.
Town officials say the ban will affect a cross section of people in the community. Developers, as well as regular residents who own small-sized lots, may be among those most affected by the ban.
Richard Glidden, a Nantucket developer and island native, owns a 15-lot subdivision and is unable to hook in to the sewer line. He also cannot build septic systems because the lots are not large enough to meet local regulations.
``If I can't come to some accommodation, I'm going to have to go to court,'' Mr. Glidden says.
The state faults Nantucket for approving too many projects. Town officials complain, however, that the state was equally at fault for not monitoring the situation more closely. According to Planning Commission director Klein, both state and local administrative offices figured the other had the situation under control.
The town is hoping to negotiate with the state on the moratorium. Selectman Sevrens says the town needs to design some kind of fair system to allocate access to the sewer system. Local officials must devise a plan to divide up the number of gallons a plant can handle, she says.
``It's just a matter of gallons,'' she says. ``We're just going to have to divvy them up.''