Edgartown Great Pond Receives State Assistance


Edgartown's beloved Great Pond, a delicate balance of fresh and salt water that has become fragile as a result of the burdens of development, is at the top of the state's priority list to receive a comprehensive estuary restoration plan.

"They will essentially hand us the tools for managing the watershed and an understanding of the mechanics of doing that," said Tom Wallace, president of the Great Pond Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in 1999 to protect the health of the pond.

The pond is one of fewer than a dozen being fast-tracked through the Massachusetts Estuaries Project - a collaborative effort aimed at assessing the overall health and specific nutrient loading capacity for 89 estuaries south of Duxbury.

Years of legwork by the town, neighbors and the Martha's Vineyard Commission gave the great pond the edge, placing it ahead of other state estuaries the team of biologists will tackle in the next six years.

A collaborative effort of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Massachusetts School of Marine Science and Technology, the program pulls the state's most noted biologists to the unique fresh and salt water bodies of southeastern Massachusetts.

"Communities are watching water quality decline, and they want to fix the problem. What experience has taught us over the last 10 years is that a lot of money has been wasted trying to figure out the best way to go," said Dr. Brian Holmes, lead biologist for the estuaries project.

"About a half a million dollars has been spent in Massachusetts on the wrong approach. Communities can't just take a laissez-faire approach," Mr. Holmes said.

The biologists will monitor water quality, keep tabs on habitat, oxygen levels, water temperature, algae bloom, nutrient loading and eelgrass health in the great pond over the next year. Their progress has been greatly advanced by baseline measurements gathered by water resources planner William Wilcox, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute oceanographer emeritus Arthur Gaines and Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall.

The estuaries project will continue to rely on local collaboration, Mr. Holmes said. Robert Woodruff, longtime Island conservationist and biologist and recently named executive director of the Great Pond Foundation, will also aid the team.

Mr. Holmes expects the management plan to be completed and presented to local officials within two years.

The great pond - a once rich fishery - attracted a groundswell of local concern in the late 1980s when neighbors and local officials witnessed the pond's deterioration.

In 1989, residents and the Martha's Vineyard Commission designated the great pond, along with other ponds in the town, as a district of critical planning concern. The ponds advisory committee established through the designation has crafted town bylaws in the last 13 years to further protect the pond.

Riparian owners joined the effort in the 1990s, creating the Great Pond Foundation to fund public education and testing for the pond.

"Few Edgartown voters live out on the pond. It was like a great secret and didn't experience the development pressures other areas did. They began to wonder about the effects on this schizophrenic little body of water," Mr. Wallace said.

Despite the community's concern for the pond's well-being and aggressive efforts to protect the system, the estuary still struggles.

"It's not really in that good of health," Mr. Howes said. "It's enriched in nitrogen, and it lost most of its eelgrass. And the pond has its own special problems because there's no natural opening to the sea.

"It's not uncommon for systems in the state. It's certainly not the worst; these problems are not unique to Edgartown," Mr. Howes said.

The last decade has brought steep highs and lows for Edgartown Great Pond.

In 1993, algae blooms muddied the water, causing fishkill and destroying much of the pond's eelgrass. Those conditions returned in 1999 and 2000, threatening the prime fishery habitat.

In 1994, the town shellfish constable detected the first traces of dermo - a disease that shortens the lifespan of oysters, preventing them from reaching adulthood. Dermo, along with the algae blooms, wiped out 80 per cent of the oyster stock that year, and an estimated third of all three and four-year-old oysters continue to die each year. Oysters more than eight years old have all but disappeared from the great pond.

In 2001, the pond remained open for an unprecedented 11 weeks, thanks to the town's dredging project. It was also opened for another six weeks at the beginning of 2002.

Bluefish and bass flourished in the great pond all winter.

The Great Pond Foundation contends that the rate of nutrient loading from fully treated septic systems in the pond's watershed contributes about 50 to 100 times more nitrogen than a healthy pond can hold. At buildout, Mr. Wilcox predicted, nitrogen loading from residential septic systems will account for about half of the pond's nutrient saturation. The Edgartown wastewater treatment plant contributes about 10 to 15 per cent of the nitrogen the pond holds - 20 per cent less than the former treatment plant.

But there have been successes in warding off aggressive development that would inevitably have flooded the pond's watershed with harmful nutrients. A 200-acre site previously proposed for a private golf club on the pond's edge is now protected by the Nature Conservancy and hosts a single-family dwelling. Herring Creek Farm - the subject of a long, ugly development battle - holds a fraction of the number of homes once proposed for land on the pond's eastern edge. The addition of undeveloped land by the George Flynn family to the state forest further buffered the pond from future development.

Final results from the estuaries project will offer regulatory groups precise thresholds for nitrogen contributions in the watershed, Mr. Howes said.

"Everyone wants to get this moving forward, but before you do something you need to come up with the plan, a sound plan that can be permitted and scientifically validated," Mr. Howes said.

The town's financial contribution - which can be partially calculated in terms of studies already complete - will be $30,000 to $40,000 out of a total of nearly $200,000 spent on the great pond alone. The estuaries project - sustained on a budget of $13 million - saves towns about three-quarters of what they would typically spend if they launched a similar project independently.

Any pond on Martha's Vineyard can join the estuaries project in the next six years, but each one needs a baseline of three years of water-quality studies before participating.

Mr. Woodruff hopes that property owners around other Island ponds will take the initiative to commission such water-quality testing to take advantage of the program's technology.

"It's a people, dollar and environmental problem. We're fighting nature and nitrogen pollution, but there is a lot of interest in correcting the problem," Mr. Woodruff said.