In late summer, public officials in northern Caroline County, MD, celebrated the opening of a new $19 million sewage treatment plant that will both replace the antiquated plant in Greensboro and connect to 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 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.

But the new plant is also significant because it is the first step toward solving a problem nearly five decades in the making: Treating waste from entire towns that do not have public sewers and have failing septic systems. Though septic tank waste is a relatively small portion of Maryland’s nitrogen pollution — about 8 percent — it is one of the fastest growing sectors, in part because so many new developments have been built on septic systems. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration enacted legislation to slow that development. But old septic tanks continue to pollute rivers and streams. In the case of Goldsboro, local and state officials were well aware of the problem. They just couldn’t gather the funds to solve it, said 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.”

Since it passed its flush tax legislation in 2004, Maryland has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the state’s largest sewage treatment plants. Once that was well under way, it began upgrading smaller projects like Greensboro, which has about 2,000 residents. In recent years, the Maryland Department of the Environment has focused on replacing failing septic systems at individual homes with systems that use nitrogen-removing technology, and the state has required many new developments not on public sewer to have denitrifying septic systems installed when they’re built.

Money for those projects, as well as for cover crops, comes from rising fees assessed to Marylanders. As of July 2014, according to the MDE, the state comptroller had deposited $620 million into the state’s wastewater treatment plant fund, $83 million into the septic upgrade fund, and $64 million into the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s fund for cover crops.

Homeowners have been able to apply for money to upgrade their systems, but the funds were not set up for the expensive and labor-intensive process of hooking up entire towns.

Goldsboro’s 100 households are not alone in their predicament. The northern Caroline County towns of Henderson, Templeville and Marydel also have failing septic systems. Their leaders hoped they would be able to hook into Greensboro’s plant, but the money wasn’t available at the time of the groundbreaking.

Goldsboro’s sewage woes go back at least to the 1980s, when William Councell Jr. operated his Lake Bonnie campground and farm just outside the town of Goldsboro, near the intersection of MD Routes 313 and 287. Occasionally, suds from the local ditch in Goldsboro would end up in the lake. The health department kept a close eye on it. In 1985, and again in 1988, townspeople voted not to connect Goldsboro to a public sewage system to address the problem because it would cost too much — even though the federal government was going to pay for most of it. By 1995, the Caroline County Health Department ordered the lake closed.

By 1996, though, the town didn’t appear to have a choice. The Maryland Department of the Environment ordered Goldsboro to fix its failing septic system or risk fines of $100 a day.

Over the course of nearly 20 years, the state collected no fines. Assistant State Attorney General Steve Johnson said the state never enforced the order; if the town had no money to pay for its plant, how could it have money to pay fines?

Instead, Johnson said, the state worked with Goldsboro to come up with a solution. It took so long that many of the local officials in power when the effort began are no longer in office. Indeed, two have died: former Denton Mayor Brad Horsey, who once hoped to 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 beginning with his 1996 election to make sure any plan that helped Goldsboro also addressed 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 at the groundbreaking. “And to be honest, I was one of them.”

The day still isn’t coming quickly. 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 to the plant, will happen in 2018. Originally, the project was to be $32 million and hook up all of the towns. But when county officials could not procure enough funding for that project and did not want to hike sewage rates too high in the small and relatively poor towns, the county decided to go ahead with the part that was funded. Officials are still hoping that Marydel, Henderson and Templeville will be able to hook into the system eventually with the help of state and federal funds. Like Goldsboro, they have no treatment at all.

Not only does that mean that their waste ends up in the Choptank River frequently. It also means they can’t make significant changes to their homes, such as adding bathrooms, said Goldsboro Mayor Robin Cahall.

MDE officials said they hoped to use the Greensboro plant as a model of cooperation for other areas that need to tackle these issues. Spokesman Jay Apperson said the department is also considering a project to hook the town of Barclay in Queen Anne’s County to the Sudlersville wastewater plant and another to connect tiny Georgetown’s few homes to the plant in the small town of Galena, in northern Kent County.

But Apperson said most of the time, the cost is too high for the whole town to connect into a plant.

“It’s not uncommon to see $1,000 per year (per home) for sewer service for two to three decades in these types of projects,” Apperson said.

The Delaware side of Marydel is not on failing septic systems, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Many of the homes are on systems that have been updated since the 1980s and sit on elevated sand mounds, said agency spokesman Michael Globetti. The larger lot sizes mean the systems have enough land for drainage and are not likely to have waste that spills into tributaries.

With Delaware’s assistance, the nearby towns of Hartly and Kenton, as well as the coastal towns of Kitts Hummock and Pickering Beach eliminated their septic systems and hooked into the sewer system. In those cases, the towns had to petition the counties to connect, and the state supported the application. To date, Delaware’s clean water revolving loan fund has provided $114 million to 29 “collection and conveyance systems” that handle waste. But Globetti said the state hasn’t tracked how many septic systems have been eliminated since the work began.

At the groundbreaking for the Greensboro plant, 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. Residents, the MDE, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are funding the project. Greensboro Mayor Joe Noon said that residents’ bills will rise from about $206.75 a quarter to $270 within a year.

Noon said that 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.

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.

One person not invited to the groundbreaking: Gail Litz, the daughter of William Councell, who inherited Lake Bonnie from her father and presided over the closing of her beloved campground for good in 2010, when she lost the property to foreclosure. Litz fought for the sewage plant for more than a decade, hoping its arrival would save her property. In 2003, after years of serving on the sewer planning committee, she wrote to the county in frustration:

“I want to know how long these residents will be allowed to contaminate the streams, lake, river and Chesapeake Bay? How long is the county going to take a chance on the health and safety of its citizens?”

The answer would be almost two more decades.

Litz sued the county and the town in 2010, arguing that the town polluted her lake and that the state had the authority to stop them from doing so, but did nothing. She is waiting for a ruling from the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, to determine if she can proceed with her case against the state.

Litz, who now lives in Florida with her grandchildren, said she’s happy for her former neighbors — they deserve to have a state-of-the-art waste treatment plant, she said. She just wished it had been done sooner.

“I helped my father build the campsite. I worked there all my life. It was heartbreaking, it’s still heartbreaking,” she said of losing her property. “You don’t get over something like that when it’s in your blood.”

Levengood agreed that the fix for Lake Bonnie and Goldsboro came too late, and at too high an environmental cost.

“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?”