Sussex County Council has approved a renewed and expanded agreement with the City of Rehoboth Beach transforming the way wastewater is treated in the area.

The agreement supports the city’s plans to construct an ocean outfall disposal system that will release treated wastewater into the Atlantic Ocean.

The $52.5 million project allows the city to comply with orders to stop discharging the treated wastewater into the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal.

The agreement reached Tuesday directs the county to contribute $22 million toward the construction costs, which the city said is essential for the project to proceed.

The agreement also creates additional partnerships the city and county say will make wastewater treatment more cost-effective and beneficial for both parties.

“I think it’s a big step forward, it’s a partnership with the county, and it’s another piece of our wastewater puzzle coming together that’s going to pay big benefits in the future for the city,” said Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper.

The city began plans for the ocean outfall disposal system in order to comply with a 2002 court order to stop discharging wastewater in the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal by the end of 2014. Even though the city made numerous efforts to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from the waste stream over the years, it was still not enough to protect the inland bays.

“The issue there is you have an enormous amount of flow with an enormous amount of nutrient pollution in it, and it’s entering a body of water that has naturally long flushing times,” said Chris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.

“So the pollution that gets in that water stays there, and it causes a lot of problems for the health of the bay.”

The ocean outfall disposal system has been studied for the last decade by the city, county and state. The city had studied alternatives, such as applying the wastewater to land, but that would not be in accordance with state’s regulations if applied within the inland bay’s watershed, and the city was not able to find an economical spot outside the watershed to apply it to.

Bason said the new disposal system will remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the water, transferring those nutrients to a disposal point in the ocean a mile off Deauville Beach in Rehoboth Beach. The environmental impact will be relatively small, he said.

“The reason for that is there’s a huge amount of flushing and dilution that goes on out there. So, the studies the city has conducted show that the effluent is dispersed within a few hundred feet within just a few minutes, and the concentrations of the nutrients go to background levels within that time and space—so very quickly. It’s essentially non-detectable from background levels,” Bason said.

“So the real difference is where is the effluent being placed? It’s got to go somewhere, and right now it’s being put in the worst possible spot, and putting it in the new location will have huge improvements. It’s good to remember what a positive impact this will be on Rehoboth Bay. And it is a highly used bay—people are clamming in it all the time, fishing in it, boating in it, swimming in it, and it is very sensitive to pollution—so this should really improve the water quality in Rehoboth Bay.”

John Doerfler, chapter chair of the Delaware chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, disagrees. He said the new system will have negative environmental affects, while costing residents more money.

City wastewater rates have already gone up about 50 percent in anticipation of the project, and will likely increase by another 75 percent over time.

Doerfler said he believes the city ignored better public-private options in favor of keeping the treatment system under city control. He also said there was never an opportunity for the public to comment on the county’s actions.

“It’s pretty upsetting to know county residents are contributing to a failed solution. It’s just a shame they’re going to put the public’s health in jeopardy over somebody who just refuses to compromise on anything. This is just a bad project—it’s bad for the ocean, it’s bad for Delaware, it’s bad for the tourists coming through the area,” Doerfler said.

“There are more environmentally-friendly solutions already on the table, as well as being more cost-effective and cheaper, so this is just a group of hardheaded men who are determined to have their way, even if it’s going to cost residents and taxpayers more money.”

Mayor Sam Cooper argues the project is the most cost-effective option, and doesn’t have measureable impacts to the environment.

“The alternatives would include payments forever to third parties,” he said.

DNREC has issued permits for the project, and on Monday, the city will award contracting bids for the outfall. As soon as a contractor is chosen, the city will have more information on the construction process, and how it may affect nearby residents during that period. However, construction is expected to begin in the fall, and completed by spring. The city must have wastewater out of the bay by June of next year.

The agreement reached this week also directs the county to continue to pay the city to treat and dispose wastewater from county residents, mostly in Dewey Beach, Henlopen Acres and other unincorporated areas outside Rehoboth Beach, and pay for upgrades to the city’s wastewater plant.

In return, the city will pay the county to treat bio solids at a county facility. The county will be responsible for hauling the city's bio solids to a new treatment plant at the county's inland bays facility. Fees will be determined once the new facility is operational, and the city will not have to contribute to operating costs until that time. The process will be less costly for city users in Rehoboth Beach, according to the city, but it does not have specific numbers on the cost difference.

The county and city will exchange annual fees, based on utilization for services.

The county also has been partnering with other municipalities to address long-term plans for public wastewater treatment and disposal.

“The residents in the area can feel assured the county is keeping their best interest in mind in diversifying our waste water options, because that’s the best thing for environmental compliance and rate stabilization,” said county engineer Hans Medlarz.