Chilmark balks over state estuaries project


Chilmark selectmen on Tuesday took aim at the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, a state study to assess the health of coastal salt ponds. They criticized the cost of the study and wanted to know why it was taking so long for the town to see results.

The Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) is being conducted through collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

The MEP uses scientific analysis of plant life, water quality and the amount of nitrogen flowing from septic systems and other sources to gauge the overall health of at least 89 coastal ponds around the state.

In Chilmark, the project calls for Tisbury Great Pond to be studied, as well as Chilmark Pond and the Menemsha/Squibnocket Pond system. The project requires the state and the municipality to share the cost of the studies evenly.

Because Menemsha/Squibnocket is a shared system, the cost of the match will be split evenly with Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe.

The state is still waiting for $54,000 in matching funds from Chilmark to complete the analysis of the Menemsha/Squibnocket Pond system. That figure includes a $20,000 deduction already put up by the Chilmark Pond Association for a hydrodynamic study counted toward the town match.

The MEP is also seeking around $50,000 to complete the study of Chilmark Pond, according to town officials.

MEP officials scheduled the meeting with selectmen, at the selectmen’s request, for Tuesday, December 20, to both give an update on the overall progress of the project and also discuss the need for the town to put up the matching funds.

In a memo to town executive secretary Tim Carroll, dated December 8, Brian Howes, the director of the Coastal Systems Program for MEP, urged the town to put up the funding as soon as possible.

“Regarding Menemsha/Squibnocket Pond . . . to date the tribe has contributed its full share of match and Aquinnah has contributed nearly half of its share of match. The required field data collection has been completed, however the MEP cannot proceed to completion of its analyses in this estuary without the remaining required match from Chilmark and Aquinnah,” the memo said.

Mr. Howes said the data collected indicated the Menemsha/Squibnocket Pond system is showing signs of “nutrient related impairment.”

“To ensure that state funds remain focused on the remaining systems in the town of Chilmark . . . it would be prudent if Chilmark re-confirmed its interest in proceeding with the MEP analyses by deciding to appropriate funds,” Mr. Howes wrote in his memo.

Mr. Howes also suggested in the memo that selectmen express their intention of developing a warrant article for the annual town meeting in the spring to secure the funds for the match for the two pond systems.

On Tuesday, Mr. Howes gave a brief update on the progress of the MEP around the state. He said the program has moved forward despite problems securing state funding, including a 2.5 year span with no state funding.

Mr. Howes did not provide the final report or even final figures regarding the town’s coastal pond systems. He cited only preliminary data, but said there were nutrient related problems in the Chilmark and Menemsha/Squibnocket pond systems.

At this point selectman Warren Doty offered a blunt evaluation of the progress of the MEP regarding the coastal ponds in Chilmark. “Over the past five years we haven’t had reason to have any confidence in the Mass. Estuaries Program,” he said.

“It has been slow; it has been full of bureaucracy. We allocated money to study Tisbury Great Pond and we hear that we might have a report by June,” Mr. Doty added.

Mr. Doty also questioned the cost of completing the study.

“We are talking about the town of Chilmark spending $100,000 to complete this study; and we have to ask – is it worth the money?” he said.

Mr. Howes said it will probably cost the town less than $100,000 in the end to complete the study of Chilmark and Menemsha/Squibnocket Ponds. Still selectmen questioned whether it was worth it.

Mr. Doty cited the strong scallop seasons in Menemsha and Nashaquitsa ponds as reasons to be optimistic regarding the overall health of those two ponds.

“What will come out of this is a headline in the [local newspaper] that will say: pond in trouble, or the big word trouble, but at the same time we are having very good success growing very sensitive bay scallops,” he said.

Mr. Doty said the town already has data from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) which states that tidal flushing in Nashaquitsa and Menemsha ponds is quite good.

“Are we going to spend $100,000 to learn there is 20 percent more nitrogen there . . . what we are going to do? We’re not going to build a sewer, and we know we’re not going to increase flushing in Menemsha,” he said.

Mr. Howes said preliminary data indicated that portions of Menemsha Pond were healthier than others, but said that was not the case with Squibnocket Pond.

“Parts of Menemsha Pond are in fantastic shape . . . but Squibnocket is horrible – there is a huge [shellfish] habitat out there that can be used but isn’t being used,” he said.

“It’s been like that for a long time,” said selectman Jonathan Mayhew. “Around 50 years.”

Mr. Mayhew said he would like to see study focus more on water fowl, like the growing population of cormorants on the ponds that have drop fecal matter that lead to increased level of bacteria and nitrogen problems.

“I think they are a significant problem . . . they are major sources of bacteria,” he said.

Mr. Howes said studies have shown that water fowl can be linked to elevated levels of bacteria, but he said that was not a valid argument against completing the study.

“What I find interesting about this discussion is the part about whether it’s human. Who said it was human?” he said.

“Who cares,” responded MVC member and town resident Douglas Sederholm. “You want to know what the nitrogen load is and you want to know what you have to do to fix it. This does that.”

Although selectmen Tuesday never explicitly said they were opposed to paying the town’s share of the matching costs, Mr. Doty did make a case for the MEP lowering the cost to the town.

“All the money we spend comes from the taxpayers of the town of Chilmark. We have decided that we have certain priorities, schools are a priority, for example, and ambulances are a priority,” Mr. Doty said, adding: “Everyone’s costs are up, and everyone wants an additional $100,000 . . . and it’s hard.”

Mr. Howes said the MEP would try to find other funding sources and reduce the burden on the town. He said he sympathized with the selectmen and understood the tough financial choices they have to make.

“We live here too . . . I live in a town that faces similar challenges,” he said. “The difference in my mind, and it’s a personal feeling, is the environment has to be important too,” he said.

Selectmen agreed to revisit the topic of the matching funds for the study at a future date.