M artha’s Vineyard is a bellwether of climate change, sea level rise and socioeconomic dynamics. It also is a place with both the interest in and commitment to dealing with its effects. Its efforts to date hold lessons for island and coastal communities worldwide, but there is a need for more solution-based thinking and people who understand social behavior and innovative design to show how problems can be turned into solutions.

Like many communities, the Vineyard’s economic landscape has changed quickly. Fewer than 75 years ago, the Island was self-sustaining from grazing, agriculture and local fisheries. Now largely dependent on tourism, it is facing rough waters, both economic and environmental.

The Vineyard imports almost all of its resources with the exception of drinking water, and is at risk on multiple levels. In the past few years, there has been noticeable coastal erosion, increased flooding during storms, damage to existing infrastructure, and degraded water quality in coastal ponds, mostly from wastewater, climate change and environmental impacts from land developments.

Described below are some of the biggest issues Island communities face, some examples of how the Vineyard is already addressing them and some things to consider in seeking other solutions.


Infrastructure tops the list of problems. The new $45 million drawbridge under construction between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs is in an area of low elevation. In the near future, the roads to the bridge will be under water when storms strike, based on the latest projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicts a possible 32-inch sea level rise by the end of the century. The drawbridge may survive but there is a strong possibility that it will not be accessible because the roads could wash out.

The outlook raises questions. Are roads and bridges still cost effective? Will water transport be more reliable? If so, what would an adaptable infrastructure look like that allows for a working waterfront and more water transport?

Coastal Impacts

Both sea level and storm intensity are expected to increase, and both will exacerbate coastal erosion. Hurricane Sandy damaged a shoreline road and incited a search for better infrastructure solutions. At Squibnocket Beach, some residents proposed building a dune that could help prevent flooding during a 50-year storm. Local voters opted for building a new road further inland with a small section to be built through a wetland.

The issue raises questions about when it is appropriate to remove existing hard infrastructure to allow for a more fluid coastline. How can soft infrastructure be adapted and allow for more naturalized beach replenishment, as opposed to hardening the shoreline to keep sand in one place? And the most difficult question: how to get an emotionally charged audience to consider alternative solutions?

Nutrient loading from on-site wastewater systems is probably the greatest challenge facing Islands such as the Vineyard, which depend on clean shores and rivers for their summer tourist economy. More than 90 per cent of the wastewater flowing into Vineyard coastal ponds comes from onsite septic systems. Local and state laws permit Title V septic systems, which do not treat nitrogen or phosphorus. Nutrient loading (primarily nitrogen) causes deterioration of groundwater, ponds, bays and coastal water quality. During the summer months, bacterial outbreaks have closed coastal ponds to swimming and shellfish harvesting.

Central sewage would cost millions, if not billions of dollars. Composting toilets are not socially accepted. What does a small Island do with its wastewater? The four usual approaches to wastewater treatment are centralized, satellite or cluster plants, or individual treatment on-site, and they all remove nitrogen. Are there other approaches such as capturing and recycling nitrogen?

Potential Solutions

The Vineyard has opted for a solution to water quality problems that other coastal communities could learn from: oyster farms. Shellfish are ecological engineers and filter feeders that remove nitrogen. Oyster farms create a win-win scenario that not only improves water quality but also creates a local food product. More oyster farms are now being introduced to the Island and they have been economically successful.

Local fishermen who have been struggling with strict regulations for fishing are turning to shellfish farming. To complement the oyster farms, conservation groups and town shellfish departments have been introducing oyster propagation projects. Recently, 100 cubic yards of sea clam shells were put into the Tisbury Great Pond, followed by 250,000 juvenile oysters, with the goal of creating sanctuaries while improving water quality. The propagation project cost approximately $60,000, including permits.

Fertilizer regulations have been another creative, low-cost solution, thanks mostly to local conservation groups. Lawn fertilizers may account for five to 15 per cent of the Island’s controllable nitrogen. The new regulations stipulate that fertilizer cannot be applied during winter months, or during a heavy rain. Buffer zones must protect ponds and golf courses from fertilizer, and phosphorus is prohibited.

Why phosphorus? In wastewater, phosphorus comes mostly from consumer products such as detergents, toothpaste, soaps and shampoos. Phosphorous, along with nitrogen and potassium, are found in all fertilizers and represent the three key ingredients in a bag of fertilizer for your garden. Phosphorus is not usually a problem in coastal ponds, but it causes algal blooms in fresh water.

Looking at the problem from a different perspective may hold the seeds to another solution. Phosphorus, mined as phosphate-bearing rock, is a finite material. In 2009, a group of researchers estimated that we had already surpassed peak phosphorus production and that reserves would be depleted in 25 to 50 years, squeezing farmers and driving up food prices globally.

Faced with this prospect, new methods are being developed to remove phosphorous from wastewater in an economical way so that the phosphorous can be harvested and recycled. Though nitrogen in fertilizer gets the most attention, could there an unrealized economic value in the phosphorus on the Vineyard and other islands? How could the Island’s wastewater treatment facilities adopt technology to harvest nutrients and possibly transfer this technology to on-site septic systems?

Drinking Water Supply

The Vineyard has an excellent aquifer that is recharged solely from rain. There has been a strong Island history of protecting open spaces and land by local conservation groups. It is assumed by many that drinking water will always be high quality.

However, nitrate-nitrogen, a major component of human wastewater, is being passed through septic systems virtually untreated and introduced to the underlying groundwater. High levels of nitrates are dangerous to human health. Now, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other emerging contaminants are beginning to appear in drinking water supplies, as revealed in a study conducted on Cape Cod.

In 2011, the Silent Spring Institute tested 20 private drinking water wells in seven towns on Cape Cod for emerging contaminants. Eighty-five percent of samples were contaminated, which shows that chemicals in wastewater can seep from septic systems and make their way into drinking water. Many compounds found in the study are known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or “gender benders.” In some organisms, these chemicals can change the gender of a species. Investigations are underway into the effects in humans.

A theoretical solution to this problem would be to seal on-site septic systems so they do not allow for leaching of compounds into groundwater. How would this be achieved in a cost-effective way that allows for minimal maintenance?

Many islands are forced to capture rainfall for drinking water. This could be a future scenario for the Vineyard. Is it possible to develop a systems approach in regards to the hydrologic cycle? The amounts of precipitation and evaporation are not currently a consideration in planning. How would those considerations improve the planning and design process?

Composting is a solution that offers big potential benefits for little cost. A new state law bans establishments from tossing out one ton or more of food waste per week. Instead it must be sent to a composting facility. Local groups are in the midst of creating a feasibility study for an Islandwide composting facility.

There are no easily available figures for the amount of fertilizer that is shipped to the Vineyard each year, mostly for landscaping, but large-scale composting could potentially reduce that amount. How does the Island community harvest nutrients that support a local economy, not only from wastewater but also compost material, and develop fertilizer products for agricultural and landscaping uses? How could the costs for importing fertilizer products be reduced?


Local farming and local foods have gained a strong following on the Island. Island Grown Schools, a program of the Island Grown Initiative, offers a farm-to-school program that builds school gardens and incorporates education on sustainable small farming into school curriculums. More recently, IGI has acquired ownership of a 40-acre farm and a 33,000-square-foot greenhouse. This local nonprofit envisions leasing commercial farm lots, establishing a business incubator, building affordable housing for farmers and operating a slaughterhouse. One of the most exciting proposals is the repurposing of the greenhouse into a hydroponics operation with a separate aquaponics system. The greenhouse will be a zero-discharge facility, with all recycled water flowing through the hydroponic system. The goal is to establish financially self-sustaining operations. The nonprofit is also investigating biomass, wind and solar options for the greenhouse and the farm.

When the National Science Foundation announced the greatest engineering challenges for the 21st century, two among them were the management of the nitrogen cycle and access to clean water. Islands around the world are waiting for solutions to these challenges.

The Vineyard has an opportunity to be in the forefront of these efforts. It could demonstrate the effectiveness of soft, flexible infrastructure that utilizes a working waterfront as an adaptive response, as opposed to 19th century infrastructure of roads, bridges and central wastewater treatment facilities. It could demonstrate a model for nutrient harvesting of nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater and compost.

There are many nonprofits and municipal organizations that have summer positions and need engineering minds. The engineers of the future are being called to duty.

Camron Adibi is a longtime summer resident, a Vineyard Vision Fellow, and a founder of IslandSustainability.com. A version of this essay first appeared on the website Engineering For Change, engineeringforchange.org.