As another summer opens, here we sit and watch as the coves of Edgartown Great Pond again breed their floating islands of glutinous algae, thriving on the cocktail of nutrients coming from the watershed. Are we faced with yet another summer of wading through stinking black goo to get to the pond?
Has anything changed since last summer? Have we learned anything?
I’ve polled some of the experts working on solutions, and here is what I have gleaned.
The prospect of hooking up the houses of Island Grove to the town sewer system — one of the few bright spots on the horizon — is stymied for lack of funds. Will federal stimulus money be available? How actively are our representatives in Washington pushing this issue? Is there anyone else who could help to make it happen?
Expanding oyster culture in the pond still is a possibility. Oysters feed on the nitrogen in the water very efficiently, are prolific, serve as food, and provide income for shellfishermen. They also seem to be overcoming the disease that shortens their life.
Dredging already has been used to get better flow at pond openings to the ocean — admittedly a temporary but necessary solution. I’m also interested in dredging the coves. We need more communication and dissemination of information among the pond’s waterfront owners and the assembly of these folks to develop and maintain a bond among those most concerned and affected. All we need is money.
Of course, lowering the nitrogen output from septage in the watershed would result in major gains for the pond. I have long supported putting a moratorium on Title V installations and changing the requirements so that all new septic installations must be nitrogen-free. Clustering a number of homes on a shared, advanced nitrogen-removal system might help control some of the systems’ known maintenance and reliability issues.
Currently, new installations using Title V technology will continue to add to the deterioration of the pond. Here is an example:
A very sleek, 6,600-plus square-foot house is going up on a point overlooking Edgartown Great Pond. It is very state-of-the-art, very “green,” with planned succulents on a roof garden that will absorb water. This green house makes use of 5/4-inch by 10-inch select, vertical-grain, specially milled siding of prime (first growth) cedar by the square mile (of forest) and teak (African?) by the acre for decking around its 30-meter pool.
These folks were never required, or bothered, to install an advanced nitrogen-removal system (maybe they ran out of money?) Yet, they are in an ecologically very sensitive location, surrounded by pond water on three sides within 100 feet. Their septic system is the usual Title V system sized for four bedrooms. Too bad the succulents are not absorbing the excess nitrogen.
What’s wrong with this picture?
If this is a four-bedroom house with, say, four 300-square foot bedrooms, totaling 1,200 square feet, and it also has a living room, with 400 square feet, a dining room, with 300 square feet, and a 300-square foot kitchen, the total so far is up to 2,200 square feet. Now, allow 50 percent more for closets, passageways and stairs, and the new total would amount to no more than 3,300 square feet, not 6,600 square feet.
Anyone who claims a house of this size has just four bedrooms is gaming the system, because additional rooms such as a study, an office and a recreation room can also double as sleeping quarters and need to be counted as such. My point is that a four-bedroom limit on the size of a house is not a limit unless the square footage is also limited. What that limit should be can be debated, but there needs to be one.
If what we are designing is a septic system for four bedrooms, it is already grossly undersized — even using Title V technology, let alone the capacity for additional nitrogen discharge into the watershed.
In fact, here is an instance where an advanced nitrogen-removal system would have made sense, since there are three other houses in the vicinity that together could have benefitted the pond by hooking up to one advanced treatment facility in a cluster grouping. This would be far cheaper than extending a sewer line. This would be a truly green solution.
These are some of the suggested remedies that I have turned up. I’m sure others may be in the works. If we can garner collective motivation, there is much we can accomplish. I do this in the hope that these issues will encourage reflection, discussion, and, finally, action — which seems to be so desperately needed.
As an addendum I include comments from William Wilcox, water quality planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and David Casey, a Washington lobbyist who owns a home on the pond.
“Where a sewage collection system exists, it is the best option in terms of cost per pound of nitrogen removed. Thus, the planned sewage system extensions to the Edgartown Meadows area and to Island Grove would offset the existing nitrogen excess once fully implemented.
“From analysis, it appears that the seasonal homes are using about the same amount of water on an annual basis but are using two or more times the year-round rate on an actual days-in-residence basis. More people in residence definitely means more nitrogen in the watershed. We need to figure out how to address future development that could nearly double the number of residences in the Great Pond watershed. Cluster treatment should be focused in areas where the housing density is low and sewage collection becomes very costly.
“I conclude that we need a comprehensive and forward looking solution that addresses the future growth issue. There have been good discussions so far but not much progress yet.”
“The key question is: are we doing enough? Is there a master plan that has been developed for the pond . . . one that can be used over the next 20 to 30 years to help guide future initiatives and priorities and includes all the right parties? Has the commission applied for grants for additional funding for a master study that contains appropriate action plans? The Great Pond plan should document current and future threats, then make recommendations on who is responsible for action, what resources are needed, and determine how these threats and actions should be prioritized. There are funding vehicles that can be leveraged now and in the future, but not for long.
“We all know that if no action is taken, future recovery is postponed and actions become more cost prohibitive. Flushing the pond is like a giant Band-Aid, and obviously isn’t working. We need to address the source of the issue, and determine the right actions to take considering impact, resources and timing.”
Edmund Stevens lives in Edgartown.