Soundings : Wastewater sea change
When the first sewer system and wastewater treatment plant in Vineyard history was built in 1972, it was because human waste was bobbing in Edgartown harbor, sent from establishments piping their overflow into the storm drains. The Edgartown wastewater treatment system - for nearly three decades the Island's only such system - was built for the sake of sanitation and the public health.
In the early years, management of the Edgartown plant involved little more than sending someone from the highway department by every few days to be sure the pipes weren't clogged. Testing of effluent was almost unknown - heck, everybody knew what it was. It was sewage.
Now the plant's operators test the effluent every day to ensure it meets government standards for safe drinking water. Plant operators now have to know more than how to drive a truck and unlock a gate: The state test is so stringent that when it was last administered in November, only 27 percent of candidates passed.
When Bill Wilcox, an Island boy then fresh out of Columbia University with a degree in geology, landed a job with the Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1975, one of his first tasks was to help prepare the MVC's 1976 study of water quality on the Island. To read that report today is to be struck by how dramatically our perspective on the water quality issue has changed in a single generation.
The 1976 report includes virtually no discussion of nitrogen, the problem that drives our wastewater treatment efforts on the Island today, the problem that we'll be spending many millions of taxpayer dollars to address in the years ahead.
The water resources chapter of the Island Plan might as well be called the nitrogen chapter - that's how important nitrogen is today.
"The most serious water quality challenge facing the Vineyard," declares the Island Plan in bold type on the chapter's opening page, "is the deterioration of the water quality in our fragile coastal ponds as a result of excessive nitrogen, coming largely from wastewater."
The Vineyard's municipal wastewater treatment plants, begun three decades ago as sanitary facilities, now find themselves on the front lines of an urgent environmental effort - the effort to save our coastal ponds.
For Martha's Vineyard, the story of nitrogen loading and our ponds is the story of global warming, writ small. Our human behavior is damaging the environment, but the systems involved are so complex, and have such delays built into them, that it's hard for us to appreciate the cause-and-effect relationships involved.
Just as global warming has its deniers, the connection between nitrogen and the degradation of the Island's coastal ponds has its local skeptics. In both cases, skepticism is a tempting stance when accepting the truth means changing the way we live and paying to fix the problems we've created.
The good news is that solid science is making headway. As a species, we are learning. And town by Island town, we are beginning to step up and take responsibility for what we must do to bring our ponds back to health.
In every down-Island town, municipal wastewater treatment will be at the center of this effort. Edgartown is well on its way to sewering 300 homes in the watershed of Edgartown Great Pond - the goal set by researchers from the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. The Edgartown Meadows subdivision has already been sewered, and voters will be asked this April to approve sewers in Island Grove. After Edgartown Meadows and Island Grove, the town will almost certainly turn its attention to sewering the Ocean Heights and Arbutus Park neighborhoods, which now feed their waste into Sengekontacket.
Oak Bluffs, whose plant has less capacity to accept new wastewater, has purchased acreage adjoining its plant, which will allow for expansion, and is discussing plans to sewer neighborhoods bordering Lagoon Pond.
And Tisbury - well, Tisbury has a problem. As the Island's smallest, most heavily developed town, Tisbury is starved for land on which to set the expanse of a larger wastewater plant. Meanwhile the plant it has was built for the narrow purpose of sewering downtown and the Beach Road, and that plant was nearly at capacity the day it went online.
The diversion of nitrogen from our groundwater by sewering and the treatment of septic waste is the most powerful tool currently available for restoring health to our Island ponds. Each person living with a septic system sends four pounds of nitrogen into the groundwater annually, and a Title 5 septic system removes only 40 percent of that. (Title 5, remember, is part of the state sanitary code - it wasn't written with environmental protection in mind.) Modern wastewater plants like those in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven remove more than 90 percent.
The core insight of the Island Plan on the issue of water quality - the insight that sets today's perspective so dramatically apart from that of a generation ago - is that ensuring an abundant supply of safe drinking water for Vineyarders is almost trivially easy. The real problem is that our ponds are nearly ten times more sensitive to pollutants than we are, and that if we're going to do right by such magnificent coastal water bodies as Sengekontacket and the Lagoon, Lake Tashmoo and the great ponds along the Island's south shore, we have a great deal of expensive work to do.