Public officials in northern Caroline Country broke ground Thursday on a $19 million sewage treatment plant that will both replace the antiquated plant in Greensboro as well as connect the homes in nearby Goldsboro, nearly all of which are on failing septic systems.

The new system will reduce the nitrogen that flows into the Choptank River from the two towns by 83 percent and the phosphorus by about 90 percent. The improvement is especially important because the plant sits at the headwaters of the Choptank, and data show that the loads to the river are far greater upstream than where the river meets the Chesapeake.

The first phase of the project, to construct the new wastewater plant in Greensboro, began in July. The last phase, which involves connecting Goldsboro’s 100 homes into the plant, will happen in 2018.

The new plant’s connection to Goldsboro brings to a close more than 20 years of attempting to find a solution for the failing septic systems in this northern Caroline County town.

Maryland has spent more than a decade and millions of dollars upgrading the state’s largest wastewater treatment plants, it has only recently tackled large-scale septic problems and the smaller wastewater plants in rural towns. These are more difficult, environmental officials said, because the hook ups cost millions of dollars and help a relatively small number of people, whereas adjustments to a big city’s or larger town’s system cost far less per person to hook up.

Getting the funding to solve the wastewater woes of this relatively poor and rural pocket of the state along the Delaware border has taken so long that several of the people in office when the effort began are no longer serving in local government. Indeed, two have died: former Denton Mayor Brad Horsey, who once hoped he might connect several northern towns to Denton’s treatment plant through a pipe under the Choptank; and former President of the Caroline County Commission Jack Cole, who worked tirelessly on the issue since his 1996 election to make sure any plan that helped Goldsboro also addressed the other northern towns’ woes. Cole died in 2013; Horsey in 2007.

“There are many people who doubted this day would ever come,” said Dave Kibler, director of Greensboro’s department of public works, “and to be honest, I was one of them.”

The arrangement is somewhat original, and Maryland Department of the Environment Senior Policy Advisor Lynn Y. Buhl said that she hoped to use it as a model for cooperation in other areas that might have to tackle these issues. While the Greensboro plant is 50 years old and frequently overwhelmed by storms, the towns of Goldsboro, Marydel, Henderson and Templeville have no treatment at all.

In Goldsboro, the wastewater flowed into the town’s ditches, which eventually reached the Choptank River. But first, the water entered Lake Bonnie, a man-made recreational lake on a popular campsite that was forced by the Caroline County Health Department to close in 1996 because of pollution.

For more than a decade, county commissioners and local mayors have tried to incorporate a solution that would also address the septic woes of Henderson, Marydel and Templeville. Each of those towns has about 100 residents; in Marydel, residents on one side of the street live in Maryland; residents on the other side live in Delaware. Like Goldsboro, the mayors in these towns are volunteers, the budgets are small, and the residents are far from wealthy. All previous solutions would have required billing the residents far more than they could have afforded.

Officials are hoping the three towns will hook into the system, but decided to go ahead with the building for Greensboro and Goldsboro and work to fund the hooking up of these towns as the project proceeds.

Goldsboro’s need for a sewer hookup was dire. The MDE placed Goldsboro under a consent order in 1996 because of its failing septics were polluting Lake Bonnie and the Choptank. The town was to have incurred daily fines if it didn’t build a sewage system. But MDE attorney Steve Johnson said the state never attempted to collect the fines, and called the order unenforceable. If the town couldn’t pay for a new plant, he reasoned, how could it pay fines?

At the groundbreaking, public officials praised each other for helping to acquire the funds — and acknowledged the support of Greensboro residents who will see a jump in their bills. Funding the project are the residents and the MDE, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Greensboro Mayor Joe Noon said that residents’ bills will rise from about $206.75 a quarter to $270 within a year.

In other towns in the Chesapeake watershed, people have been less understanding. Residents of Woodstock, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, voted out their entire town council when the bills came due for the town’s $31 million wastewater treatment plant and local bills tripled. But, Noon said, local residents “understand.” One reason may be their affection for the Choptank’s headwater streams, which draw fishermen from Pennsylvania and beyond for the white perch, herring and shad runs.

One person who wasn’t on the official program and who didn’t share the optimism was Caroline County Commissioner Wilbur Levengood.

“The first time I heard about Goldsboro’s problems, I was 14. I’m 60 now,” he said. “Fixing it has been a commitment since I’ve been a commissioner.”

Levengood was elected in 2010. A lifelong farmer, he was a 35-year county employee, and grew up swimming and fishing in Lake Bonnie. He remembers all of the failed plans to fix the problem. There was the vote in the 1980s not to accept a new plant, even though the federal government would have paid most of the costs; Horsey’s idea of the under-the-Choptank hookup; the former mayor of Goldsboro’s plan to allow 500 homes to be built to fix the problem; the vociferous opposition by Cole to those new homes because the sewage solution wouldn’t include Henderson, Templeville and Marydel.

“It’s a project that should have been done at least 20 years ago. But the governments weren’t willing to come together and make it happen. And that’s what made the difference,” Levengood said. “(In Goldsboro) you have 300 citizens. How on earth are you going to get them to come up with $19 million?”