A comprehensive study documented water quality problems in the Lagoon Pond 16 years ago, but the recommendations from the study - including a dredging program - were never carried out because of a lack of funding.
Bruce Poole, the consultant and marine scientist who conducted the study in 1987, called the Lagoon Pond literally a polluted environment.
"Chronic nutrient input overwhelms the system, particularly during the summer months, to cause algae blooms, fish kills and shellfish that are unsafe to eat," Mr. Poole wrote in his report. Funded by a state grant, the year-long study compared the Lagoon to the Vineyard Haven harbor.
The study came back to haunt marine biologists and shellfish managers last week when the director of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group reported that some four million juvenile shellfish had died because of poor water quality in the Lagoon.
The shellfish group hatchery program has already distributed seven million healthy quahaugs among five of the six Vineyard towns this year. Another four million quahaugs are now under culture at a satellite hatchery on Chappaquiddick.
But hatchery director Rick Karney expressed angst last week at the loss of four million oysters and scallops - an event that included a serious setback to a federally-funded growth trial experiment. Fishermen from Edgartown to Long Island are set to participate in the growth trial. The shellfish group will respawn the oysters and scallops, and the trial will still go forward.
In the wake of the shellfish kill, representing 90 percent of the juveniles under culture in the hatchery, the Oak Bluffs shellfish constable and the water quality planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission documented two large areas of the pond where oxygen levels were extremely low. An absence of oxygen in the water creates a condition that is termed anoxic; marine life depends on oxygen in the water for growth and survival.
Scientists call this condition "dead water."
Yesterday Oak Bluffs shellfish constable David Grunden said he went out and tested the water again, and found the same results.
"It's essentially the same," Mr. Grunden said.
In the 1987 study, Mr. Poole documented anoxic conditions, and also the presence of dinoflagellates, a phytoplankton that is related to red tide.
"They become so dense in the west arm that they smother shellfish and crabs as well as causing dissolved oxygen depletion and odors as they decompose," Mr. Poole wrote in his report.
Poor water quality in the Lagoon stems from many sources, some natural, some manmade. Acid rain and inadequate circulation top the list of natural sources. Topping the list of manmade sources are road runoff, nitrogen from septic systems and fertilizers from lawns.
The pond is surrounded by a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), a special overlay planning district with regulations designed to protect the pond, but there is little enforcement of the regulations.
And just as there are many sources of pollution, so too there are many groups involved with managing and monitoring the Lagoon, which spans two towns. They include the Lagoon Pond Association; the Tisbury Waterways Inc.; the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury conservation commissions; the shellfish group, which is funded by the six Vineyard towns; the Martha's Vineyard Commission; the two town boards of health; the two town shellfish departments.
Who takes the lead?
"I think probably given this major crisis at this point that it should be David Grunden and Rick Karney because Dave is out there all the time and Rick has so much scientific knowledge," said Harriet Barrow, a longtime water quality activist who is vice president of Tisbury Waterways Inc.
Tisbury Waterways has been involved in a number of water quality improvement projects over the years, including a large project in Vineyard Haven partially funded by a state grant to install catch basins designed with special filters to remove road runoff and its toxins.
Mrs. Barrow said fecal coliform counts were off the charts in some areas of Tashmoo, and after the catch basins were installed on West Spring street and later on Lake street, the counts dropped to zero.
"From our perspective, it is absolutely essential to have these with the Lagoon flushing so poorly," Mrs. Barrow said.
The Lagoon flushes about every ten days to two weeks. By contrast, Sengekontacket Pond and Tashmoo Pond flush every two or three days.
Mr. Grunden, who is also now president of the Lagoon Pond Association, said dredging has long been a goal for the Lagoon, but funding and logistics have been obstacles.
"It takes money and time to try to get the permits - and the biggest obstacle is trying to find a disposal site for the dredge spoils," he said.
Mr. Grunden said a dredging project in the west arm and southern end of the Lagoon could cost a quarter to a half a million dollars.
The Poole report recommended dredging exactly those areas 16 years ago. The report also recommended removal of the "dead bottom" sediments from the deep water holes in the pond.
"We have got to do what has to be done," Mrs. Barrow said. "The road runoff is number one, number two is upgrading septic systems and number three is educating homeowners about the use of fertilizers.
"And dredging is absolutely crucial," she said.
"This is a matter of searching and finding grant money and maybe being creative in order to qualify for it," said Mr. Grunden.
"In the meantime, all we can do is monitor and document things so we can show our case in a very finite way," he added.
For Mr. Karney, four million dead shellfish is plenty enough documentation.
"In 27 years on the job I have never seen the water quality this bad," Mr. Karney said.