Mill Pond needs responsible stewardship

Mill Pond needs responsible stewardship

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To the Editor:

It took 10 years for the voters of West Tisbury to make up their collective mind about what to do with the historic town hall building, left to our care by previous generations. Its maintenance had been ignored for decades, not by any malign intent, until it became obvious to enough people that something had to be done. So, after an extended and bumpy decision process, we now have an impressive building to meet our needs for the 21st Century and beyond, and one that more than respects the 19th Century external sensibility of the original structure. Most would agree, I think, that the town has acquitted itself well of our stewardship responsibilities for this gem of the past left in our care.

But West Tisbury has another historic gem that needs attention: the Mill Pond. Arguably no less important or historic than the town hall building, and much older, the man-made Mill Pond welcomes most everyone coming from down-Island to West Tisbury, or says, “Come back” to those headed in the other direction. While originally the power source for the mill inside the building across from the dam, now owned by the Garden Club, it is a befitting portal to historic downtown West Tisbury, and a pastoral reference to the continuing rural and bucolic nature of our town.

But as the dam that creates the Mill Pond needs a certain amount of maintenance, so does the pond itself. No man-made body of water is unchanging, and especially not one that was originally constructed to store water for an industrial purpose. When the mill was running the pond’s water level would fluctuate on a daily basis, and the drawdown could be considerable as the needs of the mill changed, or the weather didn’t cooperate to maintain the flow in the Mill Brook. Those rapid changes, of course, would have been quite obvious to any observer at the time, but without an operating mill they no longer occur. It’s the much less visible and slower changes below the surface that are of concern to us now.

An ignored old building may from a distance appear sound to the eye, but when examined more closely reveal extensive termite or Powder Post Beetle damage. Fortunately our town hall turned out to be a sound structure. But an ignored old building eventually falls down if there is no intervention. An ignored pond, however, fills up with sediment and eventually ceases to be a pond at all if there is no intervention. It becomes a marsh with a stream running through it. In both cases, old building and old pond, it’s merely a matter of time.

Periodically removing a certain amount of accumulated sediment is the only way to maintain a healthy pond in the long term. The average water depth in the Mill Pond is now about eighteen inches; the habitat, while still supporting its share of frogs, turtles, snakes, and the occasional fish, is no longer suitable to sustain trout or other cold water fish species prized by fishermen and women of all ages. While the pond doesn’t offer an opportunity for canoeing or kayaking, especially given its shallowness, even model boats now run aground in the already accumulated sediment. And the sediment keeps accumulating.

The Mill Pond has been there for several hundred years. In that time sediment has been removed more times than seem to be recorded. The two most recent times, in the memory of witnesses, were in 1948, and then again in 1970. How much sediment was removed, or how precisely it was done are details not remembered in the same way. Much of that removed sediment forms the banks of the pond today, particularly the walking path on the west side. But nothing has been done in 40 years, and while it may appear to the casual observer driving by that it is a scenic pond as ever, at least most of the time, conditions not far below the surface reveal that the marsh is coming again, as it has before. Pictures from 1948, for instance, show the extensive growth that had established itself in the pond at that time.

So, not unlike the decision on renovating the Town Hall, West Tisbury needs to decide whether it wants to maintain the beautiful Mill Pond as its historic portal. The hard-working five-member Mill Pond Study Committee has proposed a reasonable three-step process, requiring town meeting approval at every step of the way.

The first step is Article 31 on the annual town meeting warrant for April 13. It asks the town to spend $25,000 of Community Preservation Act money to conduct an engineering study of what would be involved to restore the pond for another 30 or 40 years. If it passes, step two, a year or two from now, would be a request to pursue the complex permitting process. Step three, at some indeterminate time in the future, would be a request to actually do the work necessary to restore the pond, presumably the dreaded dredging. Therefore the town has three opportunities to say yes or no. A yes vote now initiates a planning process. It is not a vote for dredging, although some people choose to characterize it that way. A no vote is a vote to do nothing.

Responsible stewardship really suggests that Article 31 be approved so that a sound basis for making any further decisions will be created. It would be money well spent, and I urge its approval.

Richard Knabel

Selectman

West Tisbury