Mill Pond in West Tisbury is the focus of environmental concerns

The Mill Pond and its sluiceway in the foreground as seen from the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road looking in the direction of Alley's General Store. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

As the West Tisbury Mill Pond committee prepared to describe options to improve the health of the small pond opposite the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, including possible dredging, a competing proposal would eliminate the dam that created the pond and consequently the pond itself.

Prudy Burt, a member of the town conservation committee, wants the town to consider removing the flashboards from the spillway and allowing the pond to return to its original life as a marsh. She contends that doing so would eliminate the cost of maintaining the pond and dam and would open Mill Brook to spawning fish, such as sea run trout, alewives and the American eel. Ms. Burt’s interest in the waterway is her own; she is not representing the ConCom.

West Tisbury selectmen appointed a seven-member Mill Pond committee in the fall of 2009 to examine the condition of the pond and to make recommendations. It’s budget was $25,000. The committee hired ESS Group Inc. to do the work.

Carl Nielsen, a senior water resource scientist and aquatic biologist with ESS, reported the findings of environmental and engineering studies last night.

The report, which was released to The Times on Tuesday, recommends dredging as the best of several options considered for maintaining the pond. In telephone conversations with The Times, Kent Healy, committee member, and Bob Woodruff, committee chairman, both said the new report does not show a significant change in the condition of the pond from the last study, conducted in 2006.

On Saturday, Ms. Burt will host a presentation by Michael Hopper, president of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition, to describe the benefits of dam removal. Mr. Hopper’s talks is entitled, “Lessons learned in two coastal streams in Southeastern Massachusetts,” at 3:30 pm at the West Tisbury Library.

“My goal here,” Ms. Burt said, “is to learn as much as I can about what our past actions have done to the native stream ecology of the Mill Brook, before we make any more decisions about maintaining a man made pond at this location. While I certainly appreciate the point of view of those whose primary concern is the beauty of the pond, I’d like to be able to make a decision based on something more than aesthetics, one based on what’s best for the native fish, the water quality, and the ecology of the whole system. For a one-time cost/action of dam/spillway board removal, we could address all of these issues.”

In November of 2010, Ms. Burt sponsored a presentation on stream restoration by Beth Lambert, the river restoration program coordinator, for the division of ecological restoration, at the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, a the West Tisbury Library.

A prized part of the town’s landscape

The pond has been an integral part of the West Tisbury landscape for generations. It is formed by a large dam made of earth with two spillways, one an unregulated culvert, the other a sluiceway regulated by flashboards, allowing the pond to be emptied or lowered if desired.

The pond was last dredged in the 1950s when the boards broke and the pond emptied. Sometime in 1970, the state, while widening the road, improved the present sluiceway.

Some residents think the 2.5-acre Mill Pond should remain as it now appears. This would most likely require periodic dredging to keep it from filling in and reverting to a swamp.

Mr. Woodruff, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Water Alliance, as well as chairman of the pond committee, said he thinks that dredging is the most effective way to preserve the pond for generations to come. He added that he considers the plan advocated by Ms. Burt to be “thoughtful, interesting, a great program but not suitable for every stream and river.”

Not all members of the pond committee are of one mind. While Mr. Woodruff favors dredging, Mr. Healy, who is also the town-appointed Mill Pond caretaker and a civil engineer, takes another view.

“There is no major reason to spend the quarter of a million dollars it would take to dredge the pond,” Mr. Healy told The Times. “There has not been significant fill-in as far as I can see.”

Mr. Healy said he has talked to older town residents and has kept an eye on the pond’s depth, along with temperature measurements, for many years. His conclusion is that the water depth has never been much more than its current 1.5-foot average.

Mr. Healy says he is not opposed to considering removing the flashboards but he said there are implications that must be studied before that could happen. He has suggested raising the pond level or removing the boards for part of the year, and he pointed out that no one really knows at this point what effect any of the options would have.

He said that draining the pond would also impact Factory Brook, the Maley family’s Fire Pond and a cranberry bog that he thinks may have rights to some of the Mill Brook water.

A pastoral landscape

The Mill Pond is part of a pastoral mid-Island landscape that includes several manmade ponds. In addition to the Mill Pond, there is Priester’s Pond, the center piece of the Land Bank’s three-acre preserve near the intersection of North and State Roads, fed in part by both Crocker Pond and Fisher Pond, visible to the left heading up-Island off North Road.

These three ponds are part of the water system that eventually feeds the Mill Pond. According to Mr. Healy, Johnson Whiting dug a canal “about a hundred years ago to divert some of the water from this system to create Parsonage Pond,” which is near the intersection of the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road and State Road.

This canal runs parallel to State Road from just south of Scotchman’s Bridge Lane and flows under State Road to Parsonage Pond. Mr. Healy said this canal diverts about 20 percent of the Mill Brook flow.

Duarte’s Pond, and Blackwater Pond are part of a group off of Lambert’s Cove Road. While these all take advantage of the natural terrain, their current size and shape are the result of human intervention — that is, dams.

Some sort of mill used the power from the Mill Brook for hundreds of years. The following is from “The History of Martha’s Vineyard Volume II” by Dr. Charles E. Banks, published in 1911. “…this big ‘river’ when the whites first purchased Takemmy (roughly West Tisbury) in 1669-70 was called “Old Mill River” giving evidence that some sort of a mill had been erected there by previous settlers or residents of the island long before its purchase from the natives, possibly soon after the settlement of Edgartown.”

The mill was built in the 1700s as a gristmill, and it was converted to a woolen mill, to manufacture Satinet, a fabric with a finish resembling satin, after David Look purchased it in 1809. The building has been the headquarters of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club since 1937. The Garden Club still owns the dam. The mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

The entire ESS report may be found at

This article was corrected from the print edition on January 24 to reflect the fact that Bob Woodruff is a member of the MV Water Alliance not its chairman.