Chilmark selectman sharply criticized the Massachusetts Estuaries Project this week, questioning both the necessity of the project and the significance of the results, at least for their town.
“Over the past five years we haven’t had many reasons to have a lot of confidence in the Massachusetts Estuaries project, it’s been slow and full of bureaucracy,” said selectman Warren Doty. “Our concern is we spend a lot of money and then look at what we get. What we’re told is the ponds are impaired, but at the same time we’re having a terrific scallop season . . . and the hardest shellfish to grow is bay scallops.”
Mr. Doty’s comments came at the weekly selectmen’s meeting when Dr. Brian Howes, a marine biologist and technical director for the estuaries project, appeared before the board to present the preliminary results from the Chilmark pond system study.
The Chilmark ponds are among 89 estuaries under study in the commonwealth for the project, which is jointly sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Using sophisticated sampling and computer modeling techniques, the study aims to create a detailed profile of the health of the saltwater ponds and estuaries.
Mr. Howes told the selectmen that more than 100 acres of eelgrass were lost between 1995 and 2006 in the Chilmark, Squibnocket and Menemsha Pond Systems. The numbers were taken in the first round of data collection using the state eelgrass mapping program. Excess nitrogen in the water is the primary culprit, the biologist said.
Describing the preliminary study results, Mr. Howes said parts of Menemsha Pond are in “fantastic shape,” Squibnocket Pond is “horrible,” and both Stonewall and Nashaquitsa Ponds “have problems.”
The state is requesting $54,000 in matching funds from the town to complete the analysis of Menemsha and Squibnocket Ponds; $20,000 of that will come from the private Chilmark Pond Association. An additional $50,000 is requested to complete the study of Chilmark Pond. Chilmark has already spent $40,000 on the study for the Tisbury Great Pond.
Mr. Doty questioned if the results will provide something the town doesn’t already know.
“Are we going to spend $100,000 to learn there is 20 per cent more nitrogen there?” he asked. “We’re not going to build a sewer and we know we’re not going to increase flushing in Menemsha.”
He did concede the need for more study in Chilmark Pond. “Chilmark Pond is without question a problem,” Mr. Doty said. “I think we could reasonably take a look at what could be done in Chilmark Pond.”
Selectman Jonathan Mayhew urged more study of the nitrogen impacts on water quality in the ponds from waterfowl, specifically cormorants and Canada geese.
“I think it’s very significant,” Mr. Mayhew said. “I think it’s a bigger [source] than man in some of the areas.”
Mr. Howes said they wouldn’t know until the study is complete. Field data has been collected in Chilmark Pond and more data is being collected in Menemsha and Squibnocket Ponds.
Mr. Howes said he hoped the town would see the project through to its completion. A final report is expected by 2013.
“The point is you have impaired water in three of the four basins. The main basin in Menemsha is the best. And that’s just the way it is,” Mr. Howes said. “We’re just here saying that you have a huge system and a lot if it is good; some of it’s not.”
In other business Tuesday, selectmen agreed to create a long-term ground lease for Tea Lane Farm that will require a $20,000 one-time payment from a tenant farmer. After that the tenant will be responsible for repairs and improvements to the house. The tenant must live on the farm 11 months of the year and cannot sublet the property. The length of the lease is still unsettled, but selectmen are discussing between 75 and 99 years.
The community preservation committee is looking into whether historic preservation money can be awarded directly to the tenant, said selectman and board chairman Frank Fenner. The money would go toward restoring the exterior of the farmhouse.
The town will hold an open house for interested farmers on Jan. 7. from 9 a.m. to noon.
“We’re encouraging and asking people who might be interested to come and look at the farm and talk to us so we can describe to them what the lease is and start getting responses,” Mr. Doty said. “Let’s see who’s out there and who might look like a reasonable applicant.”