After months of work to set up a new program to help Islanders replace their aging septic systems, Dukes County officials say they are struggling to attract enough interested applicants. 

In May, the Dukes County commission voted to use $1.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover some of the costs of installing innovative septic systems across the Vineyard. The systems were sought to prevent nitrogen from seeping into the Island’s fragile saltwater ponds and estuaries. 

But since the program started, residents have applied for less than $400,000 of the $1.4 million, leaving the program’s future in question. Last week, county commissioners pondered how to get more people to apply for the funds, while also considering other ways to use it if no one steps forward. The county has to commit to spending the money by December.

“Right now, we’re not seeing as much interest in going through the process as we were hoping for,” Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said at the Jan. 17 commission meeting. 

In the first seven months, only nine people have applied for the great, adding up to a total of $334,800. The $1.4 million was split between the towns, Gosnold and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and people could apply for it through their local health department.

So far, applications have only been submitted in the down-Island towns, with Tisbury and Oak Bluffs each having about $140,000 obligated and Edgartown having $50,000. 

West Tisbury, Aquinnah, Chilmark, Gosnold and the tribe haven’t submitted any applications. 

“I think some of the up-Island towns will tell us that they will definitely not use it for the [innovative/alternative] septic systems and they might come up with an alternative use,” Ms. Thornton said. 

Standard septic systems weren’t designed to remove nitrogen, which then seeps into nearby ponds, leading to harmful algal blooms. Innovative and alternative systems better treat the nitrogen and are currently being required for homes sold in the Tashmoo or Lagoon Pond watersheds.

The cost of the new systems can be upwards of $50,000, not including upkeep and monitoring. The county sought the grant program as a way to cut costs, though people seemed to balk at the potentially high prices.

“One of the concerns for the public is the expense of maintaining and having inspections done on these systems in the future,” said commission chair Christine Todd. “We talked about making it clear that this was an inevitable direction that people were going to have to take eventually with their septic and that this would help offset the initial expense.” 

The commission urged people to consider applying and vowed to advertise the program in the coming weeks.

“I think we need to spread the word,” said commissioner Doug Ruskin. “We need applicants.”

ARPA funds came from the federal government to help local governments recover from the pandemic. The county received about $3.3 million in total, dedicating some to the airport and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. 

The innovative septic funds were to be supplied by the county, but distributed by the towns. The towns put maximum payout limits for each grant. Tisbury, for example, put a cap at $35,000 for each applicant. 

To potentially attract more people who might be concerned about the cost, county commissioner Doug Ruskin, who spent $35,000 on his own system two years ago, suggested that the maximums may need to change.

“Prices have gone up,” he said. “Costs have gone up for everybody, for everything.”

If the money isn’t dedicated under a contract by December, it has to be returned, said Ms. Thornton. The commission also raised potentially using the money for airport septic upgrades, bolstering lost revenue from oversand vehicle permit sales at Norton Point and public health related programs.