Putting in Place a Plan to Save Our Ponds Costly and Politically Tricky, Forum Hears


By the time anyone notices that a coastal pond or bay is choked with floating drifts of green algae, the events that caused it happened decades ago.

Nitrogen leaching from septic systems and runoff of pollutants from black-topped roadways and parking lots did their damage 20 or 30 years ago, said marine scientist Brian L. Howes, a professor at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Mr. Howes delivered his somber message as just one voice among a five-member panel convened Wednesday night at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown for a discussion titled Clams and Kayaks: How Can We Protect Our Coastal Ponds?

The theoretical answer to that question was surprisingly simple: Cut back on the nitrogen loading and increase circulation in the coastal ponds through dredging.

But putting such remedies into action is a venture both costly and politically dicey, panelists said.

"Eighty per cent of nitrogen loading is from septic systems. We need to be looking at development in the watersheds," said Mr. Howes.

"We need to recommend more dredging. The circulation is crucial for getting nutrients out and into the ocean," said panelist William Wilcox, water quality planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

This week's panel discussion - last in a summer series sponsored by the commission - comes just one year after the die-off of four million juvenile shellfish in the Lagoon Pond.

Experts blamed the die-off on poor water quality and low oxygen levels in the pond.

Mr. Howes confirmed this week that water samples from the Lagoon last year "showed periods of very high stress."

His assessment of the health of Island ponds is mixed. "Parts of Vineyard bays are significantly degraded," Mr. Howes said.

Scientific data is a key to solving these problems, panelists said. Mr. Howes is spearheading a study of estuaries and estuary restoration in southeastern Massachusetts, a project that has already begun to collect precise environmental data from 89 coastal embayments in this corner of the commonwealth.

Scientists from his team will venture onto Sengekontacket Pond this Tuesday morning, gathering sediment samples and testing them the next day.

They have also conducted bathymetric testing of Sengekontacket, a detailed mapping of the pond bottom and depths. Marine scientists are looking for specific signs of trouble.

"When there's more nitrogen in the watershed, you'll see algal blooms, and the water's really turbid. The eel grass disappears," he said. "We've lost more than 50 per cent of the eel grass beds in southeastern Massachusetts, and it's a critical habitat.

"The scallops are really in trouble. They require eel grass and are very sensitive to low oxygen," he added.

Mr. Wilcox echoed that point. The coastal ponds, he said, are more fragile than a human body, and in some parts of the Island, the nitrogen seeping into ponds is 10 to 100 times the level they can tolerate.

Those levels are what interest Mr. Howes and his researchers.

"Our job is to set targets . . . to develop critical nitrogen loads," he said. "All estuaries can take some nitrogen without getting hurt, but what is the level on site-specific bays?"

Gathering data and understanding its implications will inform the recommendations for what to do to improve the health of coastal ponds.

"The data are the building blocks to improving water quality," said Mr. Wilcox. "But the information may be painful."

Lab results may show Island ponds are more polluted than anyone suspected. The information may compel town and state officials to draft new health codes that mandate advanced septic systems to drastically reduce the nitrogen that goes back into the groundwater and eventually the ponds.

Panelist Bret Stearns, director of natural resources for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said the tribe has helped collect and analyze water samples from all over the Island.

The tribe operates its own state-certified lab at the shellfish hatchery in Aquinnah. The sampling effort has focused mainly on the up-Island ponds - Menemsha, Nashaquitsa and Squibnocket - and the hatchery aims to raise 1 million oysters next year.

Speaking to the issue of water run-off from the roads, Mr. Stearns said the tribe has purchased an oil separator device capable of screening contaminants before they enter Herring Creek and the chain of coastal ponds.

"Otherwise, it ends up in the shellfish you eat and the water you swim in," he said.

The Wampanoag tribe recently devoted some of its grant funding to a catchbasin project on New York avenue in Oak Bluffs that will reduce run-off into the Oak Bluffs harbor.

Mr. Howes later praised the kind of environmental partnering that happens on the Vineyard. "The Vineyard is out in front in these areas," he said.

Indeed, this week's forum was sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Water Alliance, a coalition of various Island groups that want to protect ponds, lakes and estuaries: Polly Hill Arboretum, Wampanoag tribe, Friends of Sengekontacket, The Nature Conservancy, The Trustees of Reservations, the MVC and conservation commissions in Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury, among others.

While much of the discussion focused on problems and potential solutions, the question of how to pay for clean-up was left hanging.

Keynote speaker Karl Honkonen, the director of water policy for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, spoke only briefly about low-interest loans available from the state for water quality improvement initiatives.

Funding, he said, requires sound data to support the request.

Mr. Honkonen gave the more than 80 people who showed up for the discussion a primer on the importance of ponds, rivers and wetlands in the ecology.

"Wetlands are vital to filter and clean water," he said. "They are the kidneys of the landscape."

He showed photographs of the Nashua River from the 1960s - when it was red with the dyes from chemical plants up-river - and then contrasted that image with a current one, showing the Nashua after cleanup efforts.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall also stepped in as a panelist but he said very little, other than pointing out that water quality issues don't end at the water's edge.

He was clearly giving a nod to the dominant theme of the evening - the threats from so many septic tanks and new houses and the fertilizer spread across Island lawns.

Mr. Howes credited Mr. Bagnall and his counterpart in Oak Bluffs - shellfish constable David Grunden - as indispensable allies in the pursuit of information and as watchdogs over the water quality of the coastal ponds.

The marine scientist from North Dartmouth saved the good news for the conclusion.

"Recovery can be quite rapid," said Mr. Howes. "We did this damage over 20 to 30 years. But we can see positive effects in three to five years."