We don’t know yet if the pilot septic systems being installed in Tisbury will work, but there is reason for hope and optimism.
The town of Tisbury, in partnership with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) and Edgartown vendor CES Clean Water, will test as many as 10 NitROE systems beginning this summer at homes within the watersheds of Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond.
The technology used in the NitROE system, which is essentially two chambers that turn nitrates into harmless nitrogen gas, is proven technology, albeit on a much larger scale. It has also demonstrated positive results at a test center operated by George Heufelder in Barnstable County. That the technology was created by John Smith, an Edgartown resident, someone who cares about and values the water quality of the Island, is a bonus.
Excess nitrogen in ponds and embayments is a problem that is not unique to Tisbury, and it’s not unique to the Island. Scientific and political minds on the Cape and Islands have struggled to find a wastewater solution that doesn’t involve the staggering number of zeroes that sewer systems bring.
Tisbury health officials took some heat, including from this newspaper, when they imposed regulations that required denitrification systems for new construction or when septic systems fail, among other triggers. They took that heat because the solutions, to date, are costly — sometimes as much as $22,000, with an annual maintenance fee of $2,000 — and there are few commercially viable systems on the market that won’t break the bank.
The Tisbury board of health also took heat for not bringing the issue to voters at town meeting. That came down to a difference of opinion on who should make the call. The board of health decided that public health can’t be left to the whim of the democratic process.
Ignoring the problem of nitrogen isn’t going to make it go away. The board of health sees nitrogen as a significant public health issue that needs to be addressed. Nitrogen creates algae blooms, which destroy habitat and degrade waters for shellfishing and recreation — things vital to the vibrancy of the Vineyard.
The effects of nitrogen are well documented with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. The ball is in the court of communities to find solutions to the problem — and, yes, to find other contributors to the problem, like lawn fertilizers, which Island communities have already done by creating uniform regulations.
Finding a cost-effective way for homeowners to test the denitrification septic systems came about rather quickly. John Smith, a principal of CES Clean Water, attended a forum held in February by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, where he met Tisbury officials and pitched his company’s technology.
It wound up being a fortuitous meeting. Together they filed an application with MassCEC, a quasi-state agency, and that agency moved quickly to approve the $150,000 grant, seeing the potential benefits not just on Martha’s Vineyard, but beyond.
Here we are a little more than two months later with a grant in place to have homeowners test the systems at a cost of just $500 out of their pockets. The town health department is asking homeowners to reach out to them so they can do site visits and determine if there’s a fit to test NitROE.
If these systems work, it could be huge — a workable solution for homeowners that doesn’t require the infrastructure or the price tag of a sewer system.
The hope is that these denitrification systems can make a dent in the 11,000 pounds of nitrogen that need to be removed from Lake Tashmoo and Lagoon Pond watersheds on a yearly basis.
Tisbury watches and waits with hope and optimism, as does the rest of the Island and the Cape.