The West Tisbury selectmen said this week they will move ahead with a comprehensive watershed study for the Mill Pond, putting the question of whether to dredge the historic pond on hold — at least for now.
The fate of the pond and whether to dredge it has been the subject of heated discussion in town for the past year.
Before a standing-room-only crowd on Wednesday, the selectmen voted to authorize a subcommittee charged with studying the pond to apply for grant money to pay for the watershed study. The watershed includes Mill Pond, Mill Brook, Priester’s Pond, Crocker Pond and Fisher Pond.
No timetable has been set for completing the study.
The selectmen received dozens of letters before the meeting expressing a variety of opinions about what should be done with the dammed freshwater pond that graces the entrance to the village and is a scenic spot favored by swans, children with fishing poles and photographers.
On Wednesday the Mill Pond committee withdrew a request for an article to be placed on the warrant for an upcoming special town meeting; the article would have asked for money for engineering work preparatory to dredging. The special town meeting is in November; the warrant closes today.
“We’ve backed off of November. We don’t have our political act together for lobbying and we know that’s going to be necessary,” committee chairman Robert Woodruff told the selectmen. “We’re holding off on everything and letting time go by.
“We respectfully urge you to consider dredging when the appropriate time comes,” he added.
In an email to the subcommittee on Sept. 18, engineering consultant Carl Nielsen of the ESS Group in East Providence, R.I., said an application is being prepared for a 604B grant through the state Department of Environmental Protection. He estimated the study will cost between $25,000 and $35,000. If the application is successful the entire study will be paid by the state. And he said the watershed study is an important first step no matter what the town decides.
“The mud can wait since it will not go anywhere,” Mr. Nielson wrote. “The watershed work will be essential anyway if you are to move forward with dredging so getting that piece done is not a bad first step.”
Selectman and board chairman Cynthia Mitchell assured the crowd gathered that the selectmen have decided nothing except to do the watershed study.
“This will not be voted on at November town meeting — we’re embarking on watershed study,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “Please understand no decision has been made about the timing of the dredging versus the watershed study at this point. It’s all, no pun intended, very fluid,” she added.
Selectman Richard Knabel agreed. “None of the studies are going to change the existing condition of the Mill Pond,” he said. “I’m quite ready to vote the authorization to proceed so they can start the wheels rolling.”
There are a wide range of viewpoints about the pond, its condition and whether it should be dredged to restore depth and water circulation, or simply left alone. One town resident has proposed that the dam be removed which would allow the pond to revert to a natural wetland.
A draft report last year prepared by ESS Group at the request of the subcommittee recommended dredging. At the time, the consultant group estimated the project would cost between $215,000 and $250,000, although now the estimated cost has climbed considerably higher. The latest estimate from ESS ranged as high as $700,000 depending the scope of the work.
But even the committee is not unanimous in its views and recommended approach.
Committee member Kent Healy, who is also a civil engineer, is a strong proponent of the watershed study.
“You must pay attention to the inflow and outflow, it’s very important,” Mr. Healy told the selectmen this week. “A watershed study is a fairly straightforward process — measure what comes in and out, both quantity and quality.”
Flow will be recorded at various points along the Mill Brook, as well as measurements of temperature and chemicals, he said.
In measurements recorded in 2005 by consultant Aquatics Control Technology and again in 2010 by the Mill Pond committee, Mr. Healy compared the number sets and found that the water depth had in fact increased by about a foot.
But he questioned the accuracy of the measurements, calling it another reason for a thorough study.
“If you’re going to develop an engineering program based upon measurements of the water depth, you better make sure you have the right measurements,” Mr. Healy said. “Even if you want to start talking about dredging you better know how much you’re going to dredge and how much you want to deepen the pond.”
Mrs. Mitchell suggested the measurements be included in the watershed study.
Prudy Burt, the town resident and member of the conservation commission who backs the dam removal idea, requested that the selectmen host a public forum so that all the issues can be discussed. Mrs. Mitchell agreed and said the selectmen would schedule the session soon.
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said.