Following the resolution of a year-long contractual standoff between the University of Massachusetts and the state Department of Environmental Protection, a number of long-delayed reports on the health of the Vineyard’s ponds are again on track for completion.
The long dispute over who owned data used for computer modeling of water quality in bays and estuaries drastically slowed work on the federally-mandated effort to assess and then reduce pollution problems.
The Massachusetts Estuaries Project was set up to study nitrogen loading in 89 southeastern Massachusetts estuaries. Nitrogen pollution is a serious long-term environmental and economic problem, causing loss of eelgrass habitat and decline in fishing, shellfishing and potentially tourism.
Only one draft report — on the Edgartown Great Pond — has so far been completed for the Vineyard. A copy obtained by the Gazette last November concluded town authorities must find a way to cut nitrogen pollution coming from household septic systems by at least 30 per cent, if the pond was to be restored to good health.
A number of other Island ponds, notably Sengekontacket, Lagoon and the Tisbury Great Pond, also have water quality issues, but reports on them have been delayed by the dispute, as has the final report on the Edgartown Great Pond.
But following the agreement reached last week, which establishes a framework for sharing information between the university and the state, the principal scientist at the estuaries project, Dr. Brian Howes, said the reports would now be released in fairly quick succession, beginning early next year.
“The locomotive is back on the tracks, we just have to get the steam up again,” Mr. Howes said.
“First, we’re working to finish up the nine reports that have been sitting there in draft form, that the towns already have been given — like the Edgartown Great Pond report.
“I would anticipate we will start seeing some [other] Vineyard reports coming out in the spring. We will have other reports [on mainland ponds] out before that because they were queued before this.”
He said that although the dispute stopped work on the preparation of the actual reports over the past year, it had not stopped data collection.
“What we have is a lot of partly completed work,” Mr. Howes said.
“We’ve done most of the data collection on most of the Vineyard ponds. Without that work this would have been a full year’s delay, but now the impact is more of the order of four to six months.
“We have worked on James Pond, Oyster Pond, Tisbury Great Pond, Sengekontacket, Katama Bay, Edgartown Harbor and Cape Pogue and Lake Tashmoo.
“All of those we have brought through as far as we could in terms of data collection. We even started modeling some of them,” Mr. Howes said.
The work is of much more than academic interest. The major cause of nitrogen contamination on the Island and elsewhere is seepage from septic systems, most of which successfully remove bacterial contaminants, but do little to reduce nitrogen.
Part of the solution is likely to involve expensively upgrades to septic systems or sewering. This is not only costly, but also poses other planning problems because it theoretically could allow much greater housing density.
In the case of Edgartown, for example, the town is addressing the nitrogen overload of the Great Pond with a plan to allow several hundred homes to tie into a new sewer line from Katama to the town wastewater treatment plant.
That decision was taken in advance of the MEP final report because the town saw it coming. For the same reason, he said, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs were arranging their own study of the problem in Sengekontacket Pond.
Statewide, the MEP reports are likely to be the impetus for more than a billion dollars in new wastewater infrastructure.
In July state Sen. Rob O’Leary called for a speedy resolution of the contractual impasse delaying the MEP’s work.
“The data we have so far,” he noted then, “is demonstrating that most communities in this region are in violation of federal law. They’re in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“So it’s only a matter of time until someone, some group, takes these towns to court, and says you’re violating the Clean Water Act and you have to clean it up.
“And unlike the rest of the state, it’s not a single system, a single big plant that’s in violation. Who’s in violation here? Hundreds of thousands of homeowners who have Title V [septic] systems that are impacting on the water quality, because they don’t deal with nitrification.
“It’s more expensive if it’s done later and it’s done under threat of a court suit. So it’s a complex issue, it’s a billion dollar issue,” he said.
Also complex was the dispute over the intellectual property which will inform those decisions about wastewater planning.
Essentially it came down an issue about who would control the flow of data compiled by the researchers on the six year-old project.
The dispute meant there was no contract between the state and the Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology since last July. After 11 months, the parties entered into mediation, which eventually produced last week’s agreement. The final contractual details are being settled now.
“It came down to who owns what in a very complex project,” a spokesman for the university, John Hoey, said yesterday.
“A lot of information was flowing in from different sources; not just from us, but from various towns, commissions and environmental organizations. We didn’t think had authority to release all of it.
“For our part, we just wanted to make sure the independence of the science and the intellectual property of the university and its scientists was protected and rights preserved.
“From the commonwealth’s side, they wanted to ensure the commonwealth was getting everything they paid for.
“It was a matter of a scientific institution and a policy-making and enforcement agency finding common ground. I think we now have come to a very good understanding of everybody’s interests.”
The outcome, he said, was the establishment of a management team which could in the future resolve issues before they become disputes.
The agreement also creates a community advisory board establishing more formal lines of communication among the university, state agencies, city and town administrations and nongovernment organizations.
“The other critical thing is we now will take a take hard look at establishing a municipal services center, a data center at the university which collects, stores and makes available huge amounts of data relevant to Massachusetts,” Mr. Hoey said.