In response to the global pandemic, we have all been asked to slow down and take a break from life as we know it. Abrupt closures and cancellations of so many institutions, plans, projects, events, and jobs, have left many of us feeling both isolated and powerless. The Vineyard’s response to this emergency has been to come together and make use of local resources to support the immediate needs of our most vulnerable community members. Farms are planting more vegetables, fishermen are feeding the local community directly, schools and community organizations are providing meals and online support, the food pantry is meeting growing needs and neighbors are helping neighbors.

As an Island, we are all used to some level of isolation from the outside world. The water that divides us from the mainland, unites us as a community. Martha’s Vineyard is celebrated for abundant and beautiful natural spaces, but one of our greatest assets is our strong and resilient community. Our physical isolation from the mainland reminds us of the essential role our community and its resources play in our ability to respond in times of crisis.

We are able to turn to the woods, waters, and earth to sustain our spirits and feed our families. Farming, fishing, foraging and hunting are cornerstones of Island life. In fact, this connection to the earth and water is why many of us live on-Island.

The Island depends on clean and healthy coastal waters to feed families and support the local economy. Our coastal ponds are ecologically fragile treasures whose preservation and restoration are vital to the resilience and long-term sustainability of the Island community.

While many of the Island’s coastal ponds are struggling or on the brink, we have reason to be hopeful. The Edgartown Great Pond has a thriving ecosystem today, because the Island community came together to protect this precious body of water three decades ago. The process began with regional and municipal leaders joining forces with private citizens and scientists to restore Edgartown Great Pond.

In 1989 the Edgartown Great Pond was granted a greater level of protection by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission with its designation as a district of critical planning concern. In 1998, the Great Pond Foundation was established to preserve and protect the pond. In the early 1990s, scientific studies recommended management activities to begin the restoration process, and the town of Edgartown updated the wastewater treatment plant (located within the Edgartown Great Pond watershed) to a tertiary system. This upgrade reduced the concentration of nitrogen entering the groundwater and eventually the pond.

In 2008 the Massachusetts Estuaries Project released a report documenting the impairment of the pond. That same year the pond experienced a widespread macro-algal bloom, and the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group began their oyster restoration program. From 2009-2019, the Great Pond Foundation operated a winter dredging program and worked with the town of Edgartown to improve pond flushing during openings of the pond to the ocean. Successful openings of the pond have two phases. The first is the drainage of the pond and the second is a tidal exchange of pond water with cool, clean, oxygenated, and salty seawater.

After decades of collaborative effort, the Edgartown Great Pond started to show signs of a rebounding ecosystem. In 2015 eelgrass meadows, an indication of ecological stability, began expanding. In 2016 the pond was reopened to commercial oyster harvests, and the Great Pond Foundation launched an extensive year-round water sampling program to document and assess the pond’s ecological condition. In 2018 the foundation released a report documenting the improved water quality and ecosystem health of the pond. This restoration success story was affirmed in the 2019 report by MVC and MEP scientific teams.

The solution to protecting our ponds is neither singular nor static. Restoration is a continual process of adapting the changing needs of a living system. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus levels, rising temperatures, and other challenges associated with climate change are problems for which every Island pond must prepare.

In 2019 the Great Pond Foundation sampled the water quality of Edgartown Great Pond 34 times from spring through early winter, measured the elevation above sea level and water temperature daily, and monitored the health of eelgrass meadows along with EPA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists, as part of an ongoing study. Keeping water healthy is a complex balance between regular monitoring, analysis, and data-driven management. Decisions about when to open ponds should be informed by real-time elevation and water quality data as well as the biological needs of organisms within them.

The practices used by the Great Pond Foundation can be applied to all coastal ponds and estuaries across the Island, restoring water resources through scientifically informed management and community collaboration.

Paddling Edgartown Great Pond’s coves to explore the diversity of flora and fauna, spotting eelgrass in its crystal-clear depths, and fishing for any number of delectable fruits of the sea are all possible today because of a community-centric restoration process.

This is a time to focus on strengthening our community’s resilience and on the water that unites.

Emily Reddington is executive director of the Great Pond Foundation.