You’ve got to hand it to the clever people of Sweden. They have a health and welfare system that works, open and accountable government, low levels of corruption, crime and imprisonment and a high standard of living. Almost none of their power is generated from fossil fuels, and they plan a petroleum-free economy within 10 years.
We could learn a lot from them. Including, perhaps, a solution to the most pressing environmental problem on Martha’s Vineyard: pollution of our ponds by nitrogen which leaches out of septic systems.
And it’s a solution which is cost effective, creates jobs and is delicious.
We’re talking shellfish, folks.
See, about a decade ago, the Gullmar Fiord on the Swedish west coast had the same problem the ponds on this Island have today. That is, excessive nitrogen fueled excessive growth of algae which in turn led to what they call eutrophication of the water, essentially the removal of oxygen, which makes life untenable for other plants and animals.
Then a team lead by a marine ecologist with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named Odd Lindahl, began cultivating mussels. They found they could cut the nitrogen load (i.e. the total nitrogen in the water) by 20 per cent, at a lower cost than a standard water treatment plant.
“In one year they removed 39 tons of nitrogen from the fiord,” said Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.
So, if they could do it with mussels, could we do it with oysters? Well, Mr. Karney, for one, thinks we could. And the idea of oyster cultivation as a way of addressing our pressing water quality problems will be addressed at a forum to be held this Wednesday, July 29, at the sailing camp park in Oak Bluffs.
The Ponds in Peril forum, which begins at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by the Vineyard Conservation Society, will look at the costs and benefits of other possible solutions too, such as upgrading septic systems, greatly extending sewering, changing zoning restrictions and locking up more land from development.
“The forum is the culmination of a yearlong education and advocacy program by the VCS, with sponsorship from the Edey Foundation and Mass Environmental Trust,” said VCS executive director Brendan O’Neill.
“The idea is to get information out to the public at large about the scope of the water protection challenge, because the experts are telling us our ponds are at the limit of their ability to cope. And yet we’re not really making a lot of the tough and costly decisions about remediation and mitigation.”
Indeed, most of the Island’s ponds are probably already beyond their capacity to cope. The biggest study of any Island pond, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) study of the Edgartown Great Pond, found it could not be restored to good health without a 30 per cent reduction in its nitrogen load.
While the estuaries project studies on other Island ponds are not yet finalized, Bill Wilcox, water resources planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said water quality was likely similarly impaired in Tisbury Great Pond and Lagoon Pond, and little better in Sengekontacket Pond and Lake Tashmoo.
So it’s an Islandwide problem, but the forum will focus most closely on the Edgartown Great Pond, because it is the most studied, and also the one where the pressure for a solution is most immediate.
A group of people with varying areas of expertise — among them Mr. Wilcox, Mr. Karney, and Bruce Rosinoff, the Island coordinator for the estuaries project, Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall, health agent Matt Poole, and Dudley Levick of the ponds advisory committee — have been discussing the various options with the Edgartown planning board.
So far, things have not progressed the way some of the group would like. Another meeting is scheduled for next week.
It’s a tough problem, as the figures attest.
“There are 933 existing residences in the Edgartown Great Pond watershed,” said Mr. Wilcox. “There’s roughly 300 more than the pond can tolerate.
“And we’re looking at a potential 749 extra residences, which could be built under existing zoning,” he said.
Edgartown is currently working to extend sewerage to enough of those currently-existing houses to reduce the nitrogen load by the 30 per cent.
“That can and will address the existing situation,” said Mr. Wilcox, adding:
“But what about future development? Every additional house is in excess of what that threshold number for nitrogen is.”
Of course, the town could just keep extending the sewer system; the town’s wastewater treatment plant has extra capacity. But that is very expensive.
“The areas they are doing now, it comes out to $10,000 to $15,000 for each house, which is actually relatively cheap,” said Mr. Wilcox, pointing out also that those properties now being done were close to the facility.
“But if you have to build a new plant, the cost could be three, four, five times that.
“Who pays that? People have batted around the idea of a nitrogen tax paid by all residents in the watershed. Maybe there could be impact fees for any new development.”
Another, far cheaper, alternative would be to change town zoning to cut the number of potential homesites.
As things stand now, there are 528 potential half-acre sites, 298 of them concentrated in just 13 potential future subdivisions.
If the minimum lot size was increased to 1.5 acres, said Mr. Rosinoff, “you would eliminate 150 homes from the watershed, which would also eliminate much of the problem.
“But then you make it that much more difficult for everyday people to be able to afford anything.”
Or the town or one of the conservation agencies could buy up one or more of the large parcels of land to prevent any development.
Or we could grow oysters.
“I like that option because it’s got multiple benefits,” said Mr. Wilcox.
“It would improve water quality almost immediately, whereas sewering back in the watershed can have a lag of years, before that cleaned-up groun-water reaches the pond.
“Plus you get to harvest the animals and eat them.”
Of course, getting such a project up and running would be costly, but that need not be borne by the town.
Maybe in the future, he suggested, “a development might fund an aquaculture project in a pond that’s going to receive their nitrogen load,” Mr. Wilcox said.
Maybe. Or maybe the solution lies in a combination of actions, balancing the various costs and benefits.
“That is the discussion we have to have,” said Mr. Rosinoff.
“So that is what we will be talking about on Wednesday night. There will be a presentation on the state of the ponds and then a panel discussion on growth.
“We’re hoping with this not to be preaching again to the choir, but to try and have people from the town boards attend. Because they’re the ones who will have to do it if change is going to come.
“If we don’t do something about growth, the ponds are going to suffer.”