Anyone who spends any time in, on or around our tidal ponds has witnessed the periodic algae infestations and the consequent foul odors, slimy beaches, floating gunk in murky waters and distressed ecosystems. The pollution of our ponds, even our ocean beaches, has become so bad that they have even periodically been closed for public health reasons. Nevertheless, many people of all ages get sick after swimming, with all kinds of serious symptoms. Over the past three summers, these closings occurred when my family was visiting — we were immensely saddened that we could not go swimming at our favorite beaches and ponds — and appalled at the direct proof of one of the many ways that we humans are mismanaging our planet. My grandchildren have never had a chance to experience what we used to take for granted: clean beaches, sparkling clear water, refreshing fragrances, crabs and scallops visible to a great depth, moving on the sandy bottom among healthy green eel grass. I am grateful for the extensive reporting that the Gazette has done over the years about this ongoing tragedy, the reasons why this is happening, and what options are being discussed for healing our ponds. However, over the years, articles in both Island newspapers have contained some recurring and misleading fallacies which people then believe and repeat. I am writing this piece in order to point out and correct these fallacies, because if we don’t understand the source of the problem and what we can do about it, we will be in deep trouble, primarily economically.
Recently both papers accurately reported on the findings and statements verified by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP): that destructive algae infestations are caused by too much nitrogen getting into our ponds, and that most of this nitrogen is generated right here on the Island. Furthermore, they report that of the locally-produced nitrogen, some 80 per cent comes from septic systems. The most stunning fact is that DEP is now openly acknowledging and admitting that it is their own Title V septic system design code requirements that have been and still are causing some 80 per cent of the controllable nitrogen pollution that is destroying our tidal ponds.
Unfortunately both newspapers, as well as other Island publications often go on to perpetuate some longstanding myths, which have for years been proven to be insignificant contributors to the sickness in our ponds. For instance:
• That the nitrogen comes primarily from shore birds, boaters, lawns, golf courses and agriculture. In fact, research has proven for years that those sources play only a minor role, as confirmed by DEP and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and now by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project.
• That the nitrogen comes mostly from failing septic systems. In fact failing septic systems cause far less pollution to groundwater, drinking water and tidal ponds for the simple reason that they have gotten clogged up and can no longer drain leachate into the groundwater. • That the nitrogen comes mostly from older, pre-Title V septic systems. The fact is that older septic systems cause far less nitrogen pollution because they have over the years developed a waterproof biomat liner that causes effluent to seep into the upper 18 inches of soil, which is rich in oxygen, roots, earthworms and myriads of beneficial microscopic life forms which together consume most of the nitrogen. By contrast, the newer a septic system is (and this includes raised mound systems), the more the effluent leaches straight into the deep subsoil, a biological desert with little oxygen. Included with its load of nitrogen, the effluent also contains dangerous viruses, antibiotics, toxins, hormones (which I call VATHs and which Title V was not designed to treat), and it all leaches into our groundwater and flows at a rate of about one foot per day into our drinking water and onward toward our ponds and beaches. • That septic systems located closest to tidal ponds cause most of the nitrogen overload. Official research and testing have proven that it makes little difference whether a septic system is 10,000 feet or 100 feet from a pond — the nitrogen does not get reduced in the groundwater unless, as in rare cases, the groundwater passes through wetlands, which are excellent filters.
• That road runoff contributes much of the nitrogen to the ponds. The fact is, again according to official data, that this nitrogen contribution is estimated to be a mere five to 10 per cent.
With so many disproven myths being reported as fact, Vineyarders are encouraged to avoid confronting the central issue of where most of the nitrogen actually does comes from, namely their own and other so-called properly functioning septic systems located in the entire watershed area, whether three miles or 100 feet from any tidal pond.
It’s not surprising that Vineyarders are in denial about their septic systems — plenty has been reported about how incredibly expensive it’s going to be to reduce this nitrogen pollution by the means that DEP is now mandating on Cape Cod, and soon will be on the Vineyard: central sewering or high-tech innovative on-site septic systems. The projected cost for the Cape is reported to be $4 to $9 billion, and for the Vineyard $400 to $900 million. In either case it comes out to about $30,000 to $60,000 per household, in some cases even more. No wonder people don’t want to face these facts.
Title V regulations were instituted in 1995, and today information from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission shows that there are 10,000 or more Title V septic systems on the Vineyard, all leaching into our groundwater.
Title V septic systems are seriously threatening both our health (both the nitrogen and the VATHs) and our economy. How much longer will people come here to spend precious money and vacation time if beaches and ponds are polluted? How much longer will people eat oysters and scallops if more thorough testing shows contamination with VATHs? How fast will waterfront property lose value if foul odors and unswimmable conditions persist?
DEP has said over the years: “It’s going to be very expensive to reduce nitrogen — unless there is a silver bullet we don’t know about yet.”
Well there is a silver bullet. It turns out that nitrogen can be reliably reduced by more than 90 per cent at 50 to 90 per cent less cost than current central sewering or high-tech on-site septic systems. More than 20 years ago I started to filter my wastewater through simple systems consisting of wood chips, compost and plants. I was, and continue to be, amazed at how effective this is. Many have witnessed these systems over the years and been stunned by the test results, the wholesomeness, and just the pure logic and beauty of it all. The time has now come to more effectively pass the word around.
For home use, these filter systems have proven capable of reliably and consistently reducing nitrogen by more than 95 per cent. In 1998, it was proven at a much larger application: the Black Dog Tavern complex. There, in spite of huge volume (2,000 to 3,000 gallons of wastewater per day) plus high levels of grease, the nitrogen was reduced by 75 to 90 per cent, proven by samples gathered over five consecutive months by top Cape Cod wastewater expert George Heufelder. If DEP had allowed a grease-mitigating wood chip filter, Vineyard Haven might now have such filters on all septic systems, and would be releasing 90 per cent less nitrogen into the harbor and the Lagoon Pond than is happening now, even with the new central sewage treatment.
I call this the Greenfilter system, and over the past 10 years similar applications across the U.S. have also produced phenomenal and reliable nitrogen reduction. Testing for VATHs (very expensive) will soon show how effectively these natural filters may also reduce these dangerous substances.
A Greenfilter system, installed after an existing septic tank, is estimated to cost well under $10,000 and would not negatively impact property because no heavy machinery is required, and no trees, shrubs or gardens need to be removed. In fact, the impact would be positive because such filter systems provide nutrient-rich irrigation to the root zone of the surrounding landscaping, thus reducing water consumption and the need for chemical fertilizers.
Such natural systems are one example of the many ways we can live in wholesome, beneficial relationship with each other and all other life on our planet. There is indeed now abundant proof that we can reduce the harm we currently cause to near zero, while simultaneously reducing our cost of living and improving our security, freedom and quality of life.
Anna Edey lives in West Tisbury on Solviva Farm where she has been engaged in developing sustainable solar-dynamic bio-benign design for more than 20 years. She welcomes visitors by appointment. Her website is solviva.com.