Greening Martha

One of the many pollinators found in the Trustees of Reservations study, the female, Epeolus scutellaris bee, can be found in much of the continental United States. — Photo by John S. Ascher

The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) last month announced the completion of the two-year native pollinator research study conducted on Martha’s Vineyard. The study documents 170 species of native bees on the Island, which represents 50 percent of the 342 species known in Massachusetts. There are approximately 4,000 species nationwide and 20,000 worldwide.

“Martha’s Vineyard represents a New England hotspot for regionally rare and threatened invertebrate wildlife,” TTOR said in a press release. The study is an attempt to establish a baseline for the Island’s pollinators, primarily bees, and will be used as a tool for assessing the future ecological health of the Vineyard, according to TTOR.

The study was led by Paul Goldstein of the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution, a respected entomologist and a recognized authority on the insects of Martha’s Vineyard.

The study summary, entitled “Understanding Native Bees for Conservation, Monitoring, and Management,” reports the highest documented concentration of bees yet recorded from an Atlantic coast offshore island. The study is the largest native pollinator inventory and research project in Massachusetts.

While the study data is still being processed and the final results are not complete, the summary states that more than 150 sets of 25 bee traps were deployed in all six Island towns and more than 35 independent collecting events were undertaken with the help of volunteers. This represents an estimated 4,000 traps set, 182,000 trap‐hours, and an additional 100+ person‐hours in the field sampling bees.

An estimated 12,000 bees and wasps have been individually processed thus far, identified and labeled with fully geo-referenced data. Along with the 170 species of bees (a newer count than is in the report) more than 80 species of other macro‐hymenoptera (sawflies, wasps, bees, and ants) were recorded, not including approximately 70 species of ants.

At least one bee species not previously recorded in Massachusetts, and at least three species that had not been described (named) prior to 2011 were found. Several regionally rare or threatened species that represent potential conservation targets were also identified.

“This study allows TTOR to better understand the core diversity of native pollinators on the Vineyard, share data and compile suggestions for best management practices of pollinator-friendly landscapes among staff, partners and like-minded conservation organizations,” Mr. Goldstein said in an email to The Times.

He said that this study is one part of an initiative to understand bee distributions spearheaded by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Dr. John Ascher, of the museum’s department of invertebrate zoology, determined the specimens and oversaw the database effort. Cerina Gordon, a student at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, contributed to the database effort. The study is being coordinated with similar efforts on other offshore islands and throughout Massachusetts.

“The ongoing analysis of data will, we hope, inform sound land use and agricultural practices island-wide and enhance our ability to manage our native landscapes sustainably,” Mr. Goldstein said.

He added that the study was a collaborative effort among TTOR, Mass Audubon-Felix Neck, The Nature Conservancy, Vineyard Conservation Society, the Land Bank, and state agencies including the Department of Conservation and Recreation, volunteers, and scientists at natural history museums.

The study was funded by the Edey Foundation, which was created in 1988 by the late Maitland Edey. The foundation awards grants on an annual basis to nonprofit organizations engaged in conservation-related efforts on the Vineyard. TTOR is the nation’s oldest private statewide land conservation organization.

All about pollination

On Friday, July 20, Island Grown Bees (IGB) and the Nature Conservancy will host a presentation by Mr. Goldstein, IGB entomologist Everet Zurlinden, and Nature Conservancy ecologist Matt Pelikan.

Their presentation, “Nature’s partners: pollinators, plants, and you,” begins at 10 am at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

They will discuss how people interact with the Island’s insect pollinators, and present ways to enhance native pollinator diversity. The program is free and open to the public. For more information contact: Randi Baird, randi@islandgrown.org

The complete TTOR press release is available at www.thetrustees.org/about-us/press-room/press-releases/the-trustees-of-reservations-5.html

A PDF of the study summary findings can be found here.

This map shows the proposed area that would be available for commercial wind farm development.

As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to developing the nation’s vast renewable energy resources, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar last week announced the publication of an environmental assessment for commercial wind leases and site assessment activities on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts, clearing the way for public comment and final review, according to the White House.

This step puts Interior in position to offer this area as one of the nation’s first offshore competitive lease sales before the end of the year.

“When it comes to wind energy, we’re making significant progress both onshore and offshore to diversify our nation’s domestic energy portfolio and stand up a clean energy economy,” Mr. Salazar said. “Today, as we take the next steps toward realizing what could be the largest wind energy project in the world and holding a competitive offshore wind lease sale, we are really at the forefront of a renewable energy revolution.”

Mr. Salazar also cleared the way for the proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Farm, which would contain up to 1,000 turbines and generate enough power for up to 1 million American homes, according to the White House. The project would be built on public, private and state land in Carbon County, Wyoming.

The environmental assessment for the Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area will be used by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to inform future leasing decisions as part of the Administration’s “Smart from the Start” offshore wind energy initiative.

The Wind Energy Area (WEA) comprises approximately 164,750 acres within the area of mutual interest identified by the two states. BOEM leadership will host public information sessions on July 16 in Narragansett, R.I., and July 17 in New Bedford, to further engage stakeholders and consider public comments on the environmental assessment in determining whether to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact, or conduct additional analysis under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) in order to hold a lease sale for commercial offshore wind development.

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COASTSWEEP, sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and coordinated by the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, is the state’s annual coastal cleanup program where volunteers not only remove trash but also collect important information about the types of trash they encounter.

Keith Cialino, COASTSWEEP community outreach coordinator, recently contacted Chilmark officials and said the town has not had a COASTSWEEP-related cleanup since at least 2008. Cleanups are scheduled in September and October.

“If you know of any organizations or individuals in your town that might be interested in coordinating a cleanup, please let me know and I will reach out to them,” Ms. Cialino said. “Although late summer/early fall is still a ways off, we’re looking to start the volunteer outreach effort early in hopes of making our 25th anniversary a record-breaking year.”

Ms. Cialino said the coordinator(s) get to select the location and date of the cleanup as well as recruit volunteers for their event, and oversee things on the day of the event. “COASTSWEEP will provide everything volunteers need for a safe, successful cleanup, including gloves, garbage bags, and data cards to record what kind of trash is picked up.”

See www.coastsweep.umb.edu for more information.

Environmental consultant Doug Cooper opens a septic system for inspection. — Photo courtesy of Doug Cooper

What is it about septic systems? They are forgotten until there is trouble, and then they can be a nuisance. What do they do and how do they work? How can we ward off septic trouble before it happens?

Septic systems are a part of Vineyard living for most residents, and like a good TV series they do not last forever. Houses within the areas supported by the waste disposal systems of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown are spared the need of a septic system, but outside those areas septic systems are the rule, and knowing how to care for and maintain them can lengthen their life.

Certified septic inspector Doug Cooper recently shared some of his knowledge and experience with septic systems. An environmental consultant who calls himself “a septic guru, a septic counselor,” he has been the principal in Cooper Environmental Services since 1995.

Mr. Cooper has 35 years of experience in natural resource protection and management. With a BA in geology and a master’s degree in agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production) from the University of Connecticut, he has a notable background in wetlands, hydrology, soils, and subsurface sewage disposal. His master’s thesis is entitled “Longevity of Subsurface Sewage Disposal Systems.”

Septic systems are simple, cost effective, and efficient ways of getting rid of household wastewater in areas where there are no sewers available, according to Mr. Cooper. He said that the typical septic system we see today is actually made with 1930s technology. Before that time household waste often went into single-tank cesspools, a hole in the ground with walls made of stone, blocks, and or bricks. Some older houses on the Island still have cesspools.

The U.S. public health service first suggested in 1935 that putting a septic tank in front of a leaching facility of some sort would enhance the treatment by capturing solids and letting them break down by bacteriological action — like a liquid compost, Mr. Cooper said. Septic systems of this type have become the rule nationwide in the decades since.

The clarified water that leaves the septic tank goes into a leaching system, a pit or field and that introduces the wastewater into the soil, the final part of the system. Soil contains bacteria that further break down waste material, and the soil acts as a filter.

Many homes on the Vineyard have a leach pit, which was the primary form of leaching system on the Vineyard for many years. Leach pits are large concrete cylinders perforated with holes that are buried surrounded with a layer of gravel.

A leach field is usually a system of perforated pipes, buried at a shallow depth, radiating out from a distribution box surrounded by gravel or crushed stone that spreads the effluent over a much wider area than leach pits. The field approach creates a much more efficient and longer lasting system, according to Mr. Cooper.

Current state regulations, known as “Title 5″ or “Title V,” have almost eliminated the use of leach pits. Mr. Cooper said that the law regulating septic systems has always been “Title V,” even though the term is widely used to designate the latest set of regulations.

Most systems are somewhat self-sustaining, Mr. Cooper said. “The waste that comes from the average household adds the necessary components to keep it working.”

Solids left to settle in the septic tank should be pumped out from time to time. The frequency of the pumping is a function of how much the system is used, according to Mr. Cooper. He pointed out that the state recommends pumping every five years. But he said that is too often for many households.

Seasonal houses generally won’t need to be pumped out as often as houses that are lived in year-round, and houses with more occupants will need more care than those with fewer people. He said that the average home of four should have its tank inspected every five years, but that most homes will not need to be pumped that often. He said that overly frequent pumping may disrupt a functioning system by removing the active parts of the process.

The Town of Tisbury is the only Island town that requires a septic inspection, every seven years, after the initial inspection. New construction and houses being sold must have their septic systems inspected in all Island towns.

Mr. Cooper said that in addition to having a system inspected at reasonable intervals, the best way to extend the life of a septic system is by using water conservatively. He says that garbage disposals, which usually add too many solids, are not compatible with septic systems, and he advises a judicious use of soaps and detergents which can kill off the bacteria that is the life of a septic system.

There are several practices almost guaranteed to destroy a working system, according to Mr. Cooper. Putting grease down the drain can be a septic killer. He said that washing latex paint down the drain or drywall plaster which painters and contractors often do when cleaning up, can be extremely harmful. These substances tend to clog the leaching capacity of a system, and there is almost nothing that can be done to unclog it.

Once the soil around the system has become clogged, Mr. Cooper said, there are few options other than installing a new system which can cost as little as $6,000 or $7,000 or as much as $30,000 or more, depending on the type of system the locale requires.

Counseling septic users is one of the services Mr. Cooper offers. He said that he has encountered “septic worriers,” people who suffer from “septic paranoia,” so concerned about their systems that they will not use bleach with their laundry for fear of killing the bacteria that septic systems need.

Don’t worry, he says. “You cannot use enough chlorine to kill a system.” The systems are so large, relative to the amounts of bleach and most other household cleaners, that they are not a problem.

“You cannot measurably harm a system with the casual use of normal household bleach and cleaners.”

Septic inspectors certified by the State charge from $150 to $325 per inspection. Some have additional hourly charges to locate the system.

Pumping and hauling charges begin at around $.60 per gallon, (the Edgartown waste-water treatment plant charges the haulers $.28 per gallon) plus the pumping permit fees which vary from town to town, from $10 to $40 depending on a number of variables. Most residential systems have either 1,000- or 1,500-gallon septic tanks. Sometimes if leach pits are pumped out as well another 1,000 gallons can be added to the bill. Pump-out costs range from $600 to twice that.

Vineyard Golf Club superintendent Jeff Carlson maintains green turf under difficult conditions. — Photo courtesy of Vineyard Golf Club

Going green in your own yard can mean more than just cultivating a picture-perfect lawn. It can mean helping to protect the environment. Extending the methods of sustainable, non-polluting organic methods to lawn care can save money and have long-term benefits for the Vineyard.

A lawn can be a source of pride, not unlike dressing up for a party or having your car washed and waxed. It is a visible sign that you care.

Growing a lawn on the Vineyard is never an easy task. We are faced with an army of obstacles, not the least of which is a short growing season. Our oak tree- shaded, dandelion-loving, grub-infested, pet-overrun, skunk-dug yards give us pause. Our inconsistent rain, uncertain temperatures, and acidic, sand-and-clay topsoil, make growing a lawn challenging.

The predominant 20th-century methods for growing lawns involved expensive chemicals to deal with pesky weeds and insects. Many of those chemicals have been found to be harmful. Leaching fertilizers can put poisons into the water table, polluting our drinking water and killing the wildlife in our ponds and streams. Herbicides and pesticides can poison our pets, our songbirds, and our families.

Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), said, “Improving the Vineyard’s water quality is one of VCS’s top priorities, and one of the best ways a home owner can help is by not using chemical fertilizers that might end up in the aquifer. We encourage people to talk to their landscapers and garden shops about suitable substitutes for potentially harmful chemicals.” He also recommends the planting of native species, many of which are drought-tolerant and require little care.

This is the 21st century. There are alternatives to chemically induced lawns and many of these alternatives are cheaper. The Times talked to two Island experts in organic landscaping who have the knowledge to help wean us from our horticultural chemical dependence.

Chuck Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury, said that he can, “…go on for hours about lawns and lawn care.” He gave us a few tips.

Lime

“If you are going to do just one thing for your lawn, lime.” He pointed out that lime is organic and it makes the nutrients in the soil more readily available for the grass. “Our soil is pretty acidic and that prevents the lawn from absorbing what it needs through the roots and up into the body and leaves of the plants.”

Organic fertilizers & grass selection

There are a host of very good organic fertilizers. “I highly recommend annual topdressing with a good rich compost,” Mr. Wiley said. “That would give you a golf course quality lawn without doing much else. It is expensive, but there is nothing you can do that is better for a lawn.

“Grass selection is very important. You want a grass that is disease-resistant. There are lot of new disease resistant grasses on the market.”

Jeff Carlson is an award-winning groundskeeper and knows a bit about growing grass. He is golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, and has become a global leader in organic course management techniques. He was recently chosen as a consultant to a team that will build an organically sensitive golf course for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He offered a common-sense approach to growing an organic lawn.

All about the timing

The first thing to consider is fertilizer management, Mr. Carlson said. “Organic fertilizers are really only effective in the warmer part of the year, June through September. They are not as efficient outside that season and there is a greater chance that they will leach out into the water table.”

Mr. Carlson said there are many excellent natural organic fertilizers, but if they are applied when they aren’t effective they will leach out just like any other kind of fertilizer. “Timing is crucial. People don’t need to put down as much as is often recommended. Lawns need very little if any in the spring.”

Grass has enough carbohydrate reserves to get started in the spring without any help, Mr. Carlson said. “Fertilizer companies advertise fertilizing in the spring. It makes them look good because the grass will grow anyway.”

Hand weeding can be tedious but can be the best way to go, according to Mr. Carlson. Weed in the fall. “Anytime you break the surface of your lawn, you give weeds a chance to grow, but weeds don’t grow in the fall.”

Mr. Carlson said there is a new weed control product that gives weeds a big shot of iron. The iron helps the weeds grow themselves to death. Corn glutton has been a popular organic weed control agent, which Mr. Carlson does not like as much. It uses nitrogen as a stimulant to push the weeds through their cycle. There are methods of spot freezing and burning weeds. None of these methods harms the grass.

Pests

Insect and grub control is an ongoing issue for most gardeners. Mr. Carlson said that in northern climates like ours, beneficial nematodes can be an efficient way of dealing with grubs, which are beetle larva, and are best applied in May and August. He said that repellents such as cedar oil can work to run insects into your neighbors’ yards, but he is partial to artificial scents that are used to trap insects.

Watering

Water management is a primary issue in lawn maintenance, according to Mr. Carlson. “Don’t get your lawn too wet. There are many varieties of fungus that attack plants on the Island.” He said that fungus is a problem for lawns only if too much nitrogen (fertilizer) or too much water is used. “Fungus lives on the growing part of a plant. It will grow out.”

Imperfection is okay

Organic lawn care requires being able to accept a small level of imperfection, Mr. Carlson pointed out. “If you can put up with a little imperfection you can use a lot less pesticides and chemicals. Perfection requires high chemical use.”

Island lawns are often taken over by patches of moss. Mr. Carlson said moss is sometimes a function of not enough nitrogen and/or too much shade, and too much moisture. He said that if you have a lot of trees you should plant grass that is shade resistant in the shady areas and other types in the sunny parts of the yard. Sometimes you just have to cut out the moss and re-grass and that should be done in the fall, he said.

“I have not fertilized my lawn at home in a couple of years,” Mr. Carlson said, chuckling. “It takes care of itself.” He said he always mows the grass when it is dry and he lets the clippings go back into the yard. The clippings decompose, making their own nitrogen. “It is more sustainable that way.

“Mowing and bagging is terrible. You end up with a bag of clippings, yard waste. What are you going to do with them?” He said that organic gardening is often using a little common sense. “If a plant doesn’t grow in a particular location it’s probably not going to, regardless of what you do. Grass likes open space. You never see trees on a sod farm.”

Talk to your garden shop about organic products and methods to improve your lawn without doing harm. You may save money and time and the environment. That’s a win, win, win.

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The 20th Annual Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) Earth Day Beach Clean-up is scheduled for 10 am to 12 noon on Saturday, April 21.

A VCS spokesman said the initiative is a way to encourage community support for Earth Day, and to develop an appreciation and respect for the natural beauty of the Island.

Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank has contributed advertising space and will sponsor the cleaning of Eastville Beach, according to a press release. Comcast will donate funds for a series of ads on WMVY, and the local radio station will broadcast live from Eastville Beach during the cleanup.

Participants will have an opportunity to sign up for a drawing, and kids will receive a special edition T-shirt by ShirtsbyTed, while supplies last.

More than 20 local organizations will participate in the cleanup at designated beaches around the Island. In appreciation of all who participate in cleaning beaches that day, VCS will sponsor a party starting at noon at the Tisbury Wharf Company on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. Refreshmentswill include pizza, donated by Martha’s Vineyard Flatbread Company, desserts, and beverages.

For more information or to help out, go to vineyardconservation.org.

The Senate voted unanimously April 5 to pass legislation aimed at bolstering the state’s renewable energy supply and getting a better handle on electricity prices. The bill’s passage followed about two hours of debate on often highly technical amendments. While some critics of the bill worried that efforts to move more deeply into renewable energy might have a negative effect on prices, supporters said investments in the renewable energy sector will pay off in jobs created and less reliance on dirtier imported fuels.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the bill included important provisions aimed at fostering competition and transparency in the industry, giving hydropower a role in the renewable energy mix, and reducing risks associated with long-term renewable energy contracts. Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) led the push for the bill’s passage.

After the session, his aides said analysts were still reviewing amendments attached to the bill and that no summary of the legislation was available. Under a Republican-sponsored amendment that was approved, consumers would see on their monthly bills a line item detailing energy costs related to renewable energy. “I think the customer has a right to know what we do here and what it means to their pocketbook,” said Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield), the amendment’s sponsor.

The state set a goal of reaching 250 megawatts of solar energy by 2017 and 2,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020. Reaching those goals will cost money, Knapik said. “Make no mistake this large source of renewables is going to come at a cost, some of which we know, some of which we perceive, and some of which we fear, quite frankly,” he said. In earlier comments, Downing said the state can’t afford to sacrifice its long-term renewable energy goals for immediate cost reductions, calling for a “right balance” even as questions remain about how increased renewable energy requirements will affect electricity prices.

The Senate also adopted an amendment that would look at the process to reactivate hydro-powered dams. Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), who filed the amendment, said there was a mill owned by a nonprofit organization in his district that spent 10 years seeking approvals from 32 different agencies before it finally was able to reopen an old hydro-powered dam.

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An artist's rendering of the golf course that will be designed for the 2016 Olympics with the city of Rio de Janeiro in the background. — Photo courtesy of Larkin Group

Martha’s Vineyard will be represented at the 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil. Although it remains to be seen whether an Island-grown athlete will make the Olympic cut, the golf course Brazil will build to reintroduce the sport to the Olympic games will be modeled on the environment principles of the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown.

Olympic organizers announced last month that a team that includes noted golf course designer Gil Hanse and Vineyard Golf course superintendent Jeff Carlson assembled by The Larkin Group, headed by Owen Larkin, a seasonal Edgartown resident, would design an environmentally sensitive course that will be located in Rio de Janeiro.

Mr. Larkin was the managing partner of the development company that built the Vineyard Golf Club and also the Club’s founding president. He was responsible for navigating the projects through one of the Island’s fiercest regulatory storms in recent memory.

In doing so successfully he outmaneuvered two competing groups of would-be golf course developers who foundered on the shoals of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission regulatory process.

Early on in the development battle, the club developers forged a strategic business relationship with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, a respected Island conservation group that would prove beneficial to both parties.

Throughout the long regulatory process, Mr. Larkin and his partners repeatedly promised that the course would be among the most environmentally sensitive ever built. Mr. Carlson’s environmental stewardship has brought the course and him national recognition.

In January 2009, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America board of directors presented Mr. Carlson, a member of the Edgartown conservation commission, with its 2008 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship.

In winning the contract to design the Rio course, the Larkin Group beat out seven other finalists that included teams headlined by golf greats Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and Gary Player, The Palm Beach Sun Sentinel reported.

The Rio course is the first to be built for an Olympics since the sport was dropped after the 1904 St. Louis Games. It was reinstated in 2009 and is guaranteed through 2020.

The design contract is to be signed in Rio in late April and likely will carry a price tag topping $5 million, pending final details, Mr. Larkin said.

“The opportunity to work on this historic course for the Olympic Games is the realization of a dream,” Mr. Larkin said in an email to The Times. “I’m extremely pleased to be able to marry Gil Hanse’s aesthetic with the Larkin Group’s model of environmental sustainability. We think this will be a rare opportunity to present golf and sustainability on an international stage.”

Mr. Carlson said it would be gratifying to see the club’s Island accomplishments spread. “Sometimes you feel like you are the only ship in the sea, that you are not making a difference beyond Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. “So this Olympic project enables us to showcase some of the sustainable golf course management concepts developed over the past 10 years at The Vineyard Golf Club.”

The Vineyard Club uses no fungicides, no herbicides and a small number of organic pesticides. It also works to minimize water usage.

“How cool is it that what we started on Martha’s Vineyard 15 years ago has resulted in an important seat at the table at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,” Mr. Larkin added.

“As it marks the return of golf to the Olympic Games after over a century of absence, this course represents the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the sport,” Carlos Arthur Nuzman, President of Rio 2016, said in a statement. “It will enable Rio to host important events in the international calendar and it will be an example of sustainability and preservation of an environmentally protected area.”

Prior to leaving for Rio de Janeiro to begin the Olympic course, this summer Mr. Hanse will travel to the Island to begin a renovation of the Vineyard Golf Club course.

The renovation will eliminate the need for golfers to take a motorized cart around the frost bottom, visible from West Tisbury Road, that lies between what are currently the seventh and eighth holes. This will make all the holes contiguous on what is primarily a walking course, according to a press release.

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Legislation aimed at tackling the drivers of high energy costs in Massachusetts unveiled Monday by state senators closely mirror a bill released last week opening up long-term renewable energy contracts to competitive bidding and more than doubling the amount of renewables required to be purchased by utilities.

The bill (S 2190) triples the net metering cap for private and government customers who qualify for rebates for excess energy generated on-site and sold back to grid, according to a summary obtained by the News Service.

The average electric rate in Massachusetts is 14.24 cents per kilowatt hour, the seventh highest in the country and more than 4 cents higher than the national average. Public officials are putting high energy costs into the mix of debate over how to create jobs and reduce financial burdens for small businesses.

The bill was endorsed early Monday by the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy and referred to Senate Ways and Means. The bill summary says the legislation will not create any new costs for the state, noting utility company assessments fund state regulatory operations.

The legislation is a redraft of 11 bills filed this session, including S 1679 dealing with competitive bidding for renewable energy that was released favorably from committee last week.

The bill would increase the overall net metering cap from 3 percent to 6 percent of peak load, exempting Class I facilities from the cap altogether as long as the facility’s capacity is under 10 kilowatts or 25 kilowatts, depending on the connection, or if the facility’s generation will not exceed the customer’s consumption over a calendar year.

The increased cap would allow private customers to sell up to 3 percent of peak load power generation back to the grid, while government entities and municipalities would be allowed to sell an additional 3 percent, providing incentives for on-site renewable energy generation.

The Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee endorsed a bill last week that would require utility companies over the next four years to purchase an additional 4 percent of peak-load power needs from renewable sources through a competitive bidding process.

Utilities will be required to complete two procurements by December 2016 for the additional power, entering into 15 to 20-year contracts, instead of a 10 to 15-year timeframe.

The bill would also reduce the incentives for utilities to sign long-term renewable contracts criticized by Attorney General Martha Coakley as “sweetheart deals” by reducing the annual remuneration to the utility from 4 percent of the annual payments to 1 percent.

“The issue, particularly around competition and transparency, seems to be an important place to make changes, and I think this is a positive change that will only be good for Massachusetts providing for competition, so I support that,” Coakley told the News Service last week.

Under the bill, the Department of Public Utilities would be required to spread approved electricity rate increases exceeding 10 percent over two years, with a maximum 7.25 percent increase in the first year to ease the sticker-shock on consumers.

Certain solar and wind projects would be exempt, under the bill, from local property taxes if they produce up to 125 percent of the property’s annual energy needs, with the output behind the meter, and all other projects would be exempt as long as the owner made a payment in lieu of taxes to the municipality equal to 5 percent of the system’s gross electricity sales the year before.

After a committee hearing last week, Downing said the bill was not an attempt by lawmakers to pass judgment on a merger deal between NStar and Northeast Utilities that required the company to purchase 27.5 percent of the controversial Cape Wind project.

Critics called the deal “legalized extortion” and warned that the price of off-shore wind energy would drive up costs for homeowners and small businesses.

“I think there’s a really strong case to be made for Cape Wind that it’s cost effective over the long term. What we did isn’t a judgment upon what the Section 83 program was before, it’s about what would be the best moving forward, and just as we don’t think that least cost should be the (standard), we do think that a competitive bid on cost effective terms will help meet the broad variety of goals that we have,” Downing said.

The bill also creates a voluntary accelerated rebate pilot program for the five largest electric and five largest gas users in each utility service territory, making them eligible for a 100 percent rebate for qualified energy efficiency measures.

The DPU would have an additional 4 months – 10 months total – to review rate cases, under the bill, and gas and electric companies would be subjected to rate reviews every three years.

The Department of Public Utilities would also be directed under the bill to study the costs of low-income electric and gas programs, and the Department of Energy Resources would conduct a study of greenhouse gas emissions.

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— Photo by Tim Johnson

Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. submitted an application on Monday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate state waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard as the South Cape Cod and Islands No Discharge Area (NDA).

The designation would prohibit the discharge of any treated or untreated boat sewage in the area, which encompasses 807 square miles.

“Our coastal waters are a precious natural resource and each season we get closer to our goal of protecting all of our coastal waters from boat pollution,” Secretary Sullivan said in a press release. “This designation would keep our marine habitats clean for wildlife and recreation like boating and swimming while protecting this significant commercial fishing and tourism economic resource.”

At least for the immediate future, the state would allow commercial operators, including the Steamship Authority, to continue to use on-vessel marine sanitation systems before discharge in designated zones specifically designed for Island ferry operators. The zones would disappear in 2016.

Toilets and urinals aboard SSA ferries discharge to onboard marine sanitation devices (MSDs) that operate on saltwater. Wastewater goes into tanks and through the MSD to remove most of the bacteria. Nitrogen is not removed, however.

NDAs protect water quality and aquatic life from pathogens, nutrients and chemical products contained in discharged sewage and also reduce the risk of human illness, making it safer to swim, boat, fish and eat shellfish from protected waters, according to Mr. Sullivan. NDAs can also help reduce the growth of harmful algae that occurs due to high nutrient levels in sewage discharge and protect commercial clam fishing flats.

The nominated area includes 143 bathing beaches covering over 26 miles of shoreline. In addition to roughly 15,000 resident vessels, an estimated 700 to 800 visiting recreational boats regularly travel these waters during the summer, EEA said.

Secretary Sullivan submitted the South Cape Cod and Islands NDA application through the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), capping five years of extensive work by CZM and 14 communities to ensure the necessary waste pumpout facilities are available for boaters to use. The 14 communities are: Chilmark, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Gosnold, Falmouth, Mashpee, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Chatham and Nantucket.

“Massachusetts environmental leaders have been wise and forward-thinking by helping coastal communities to protect the health of their coastal waters,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office. “So much of our local economy is based on a clean and healthy coastal environment, which helps drive a vibrant tourist economy, healthy shellfishing beds and abundant habitat for wildlife. Establishing a No Discharge Area in the waters south of Cape Cod and surrounding Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard will help ensure these areas retain their beauty and charm and help protect one of the remaining portions of coastal water in Massachusetts.”

EEA noted that ferry operators have been working closely with state and local government and have made substantial progress retrofitting vessels, building shoreside pumpout infrastructure and ensuring adequate capacity and conditions so that boat waste can be processed by municipal wastewater treatment plants.

“I’d like to thank the 14 Cape and Island communities that worked with CZM, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the EPA to prepare for this nomination including installing the recreational and commercial pumpout facilities necessary to meet federal requirements,” Bruce Carlisle, CZM Director said. “I’d also like to thank the major commercial vessel operators, particularly the Steamship Authority, who are working diligently to retrofit their vessels and collaborate effectively with communities to ensure that they can comply with the discharge ban as soon as facilities for the ferries are available.”

In September 2009, the Steamship Authority asked permission from Tisbury to add pump-out facilities for its ferries berthed overnight at the Vineyard Haven terminal. The discharge would flow to the town’s sewer system.

The SSA plans to convert its saltwater waste systems over to freshwater systems, once onshore vessel pump-out facilities are installed and connected to the municipal sewer systems in Nantucket, Barnstable, Vineyard Haven, and Falmouth. The Oak Bluffs terminal does not require one because vessels do not berth there overnight.

In a letter to Tisbury DPW director Fred LaPiana in August 2009, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson estimated the SSA would pump out an average of 2,500 to 4,000 gallons of wastewater per day (gpd), at peak summer volumes. Sewage pumped from vessels berthed overnight would go into holding tanks at the terminal and then into the town sewer system.

On track

In a telephone conversation Monday, Mr. Lamson said the boatline is on track to have all its shoreside facilities in place by spring 2013. Once those are in place, the SSA would begin modifying its vessels, he said.

Mr. Lamson said vessel modifications would be completed based on the current vessel dry-docking schedule, which could take two to three years to complete.

Mr. Lamson said the SSA has been working with local, state and federal officials on the South Cape NDA designation for several years.

“We have completed the design and permitting for the vessel sewage pump-out facilities and we have received approvals from all of the local towns involved,” he said. “We applied for and recently received a $1,270,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Boat Discretionary Program to help with the cost of installing vessel sewage pump-out facilities at our terminals in Woods Hole, Vineyard Haven, Nantucket and Hyannis.”

Under the Clean Water Act, a body of water can be designated as an NDA if local, state and federal authorities determine it is ecologically and recreationally important enough to merit protection above and beyond that provided by existing state and federal laws. In Massachusetts, CZM works closely with communities and EPA to establish NDAs as part of a comprehensive regional water quality approach.

Once the South Cape Cod and Islands NDA is approved, over 95 percent of state waters will be protected from discharge of boat sewage.