The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week announced $1.7 million in watershed protection and restoration grants to Cape and Island organizations, which included $136,000 for the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group to advance its research into using the invasive phragmites in the battle against nitrogen loading in estuarine ponds. The study, spearheaded by Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) special projects manager Emma Green-Beach and director Rick Karney, will investigate the feasibility of reducing nitrogen levels by regularly harvesting the nitrogen-consuming reed that flourishes around the nitrogen-choked estuarine ponds. The study will also examine potential uses for the harvested plant — including conversion into biofuel, feed and bedding for livestock, and composting.
“We’re really thrilled; this is big bucks for us,” Director Karney told The Times.
Mr. Karney said the MVSG and Ms. Green-Beach started studying phragmites two years ago with funding from an Edey Foundation grant, and the resulting data were highly encouraging. “Basically, an acre of phragmites is equal to the nitrogen reduction of about a half-million 3-year-old oysters,” he said. “Phragmites is already there; you don’t have to do the permitting and the heavy lifting to set up the oyster reef and then wait for three years.”
Mr. Karney said he was optimistic that the permitting process to cut phragmites would be relatively quick and painless, since the plant is already classified as invasive. Oak Bluffs conservation agent Liz Durkee will be enlisted by the MVSG to help navigate the potential thorny regulations surrounding harvesting the plant in environmentally sensitive areas. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission will provide mapping of the phragmite beds in those areas.
Ms. Green-Beach credited Mr. Karney for coming up with the initial idea for the study in May 2013. “We were at Muddy Cove, across from Martha’s Vineyard Marina, trying to harvest an intense bloom of green [seaweed,] and Rick noticed how green and thick the phragmites was in the area, and thought there had to be a nitrogen connection,” she said. “He went on the Internet and started sending me study after study that had been done in other places. It was pretty clear that he was on to something.”
Although there is a native phragmites on the Island, the invasive phragmites was brought to this country by European settlers in the 17th century for roof thatching. Mr. Karney said that today, phragmites is still planted in Europe for nitrogen reduction, “but I think it’s a new idea for this area, and I think the EPA is excited about this because there are vast acreages of phragmites in the Northeast,” he said. “This study could have much larger applications than [on] the Island.”
Ms. Green-Beach stressed that the study does not involve planting new phragmites. “We are not encouraging it,” she said. “But since there’s so much of it here, it seems like we ought to see if we can take advantage of this thing we’re fighting.”
Part of the EPA grant will fund the work of Dr. Jamie Vaudry, professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut, who will study how phragmites ingest and store nitrogen, so the amount of nitrogen removed by a harvest can be effectively measured. “If this idea is going to work, it has to be acceptable to the state [Department of Environmental Protection], so we have to build a case that this technique will impact the TMDL [total maximum daily load] in a particular pond,” Mr. Karney said. “TMDL is the measuring stick that determines if a pond has reached a healthy state. The question is, Will the DEP accept a phragmites harvest, and the amount of nitrogen we determine to be in it, to count against the TMDL? If it doesn’t count with the DEP, there’s no sense in doing it.”
In the long run, Mr. Karney said, he believes selective sewering is an inexorable part of the solution to nitrogen loading. “But sewering isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and even if it did, you’d still need to deal with the nitrogen that’s already in the groundwater, and it’s still going to end up in the pond,” he said. ”Phragmites can do that. The roots go down about six feet, so they’re right down in the groundwater, which is where most of the nitrogen is coming from.”
The two-year study will also explore the ancillary benefits of harvested phragmites. The MVSG has enlisted Nathaniel Mulcahy, founder of Worldstove, a company that manufactures a range of energy-efficient, biomass-burning cookstoves, to come to the Island and oversee the conversion of harvested phragmites into stove pellets.
“Using them for fuel pellets is a very exciting possibility,” Mr. Karney said. “The burned pellets, known as biochar, can also be used. When they’re put in the ground, you can use less fertilizer and less water on your crops. It works particularly well on sandy soils, and apparently some Cape farmers are already using it.”
Ms. Green-Beach said Thimble Farm has volunteered to use the fuel pellets as a heat source for a greenhouse, and Mermaid Farm has volunteered to use the phragmites as a hay alternative. “They can also use the phragmites for composting,” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”
Ms. Green-Beach said that she is actively seeking interns to help with the study.