West Tisbury selectmen agree to Mill Pond watershed study

Scenic Mill Pond is filling with sediment. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

In front of a packed house Wednesday, October 3, West Tisbury selectmen and a specially appointed dredge committee agreed to hold off on a controversial plan to dredge Mill Pond, the historic man-made waterway next to the town police station.

Instead, selectmen and committee members agreed to pursue a comprehensive watershed study that will include Mill Pond, Mill Brook, Fisher Pond, Crocker Pond, Priester’s Pond and several tributaries.

The decision comes against the background of a determined push by Prudy Burt, a member of the conservation commission but acting on her own, to enlist town support to remove the historic dam that created the pond and restore the waterway to its natural course.

The committee has said that dredging is necessary to prevent the pond from drying up and disappearing forever due to the buildup of sentiment on the pond’s muddy bottom.

A firm hired by the town, ESS environmental engineering, has previously presented the pond committee with three options for dredging the pond, costing between $240,000 and $700,000.

The pond committee had settled on the first and least costly option, to remove 3,150 cubic yards at a cost of $240,000. That plan is expected to increase the average depth of the shallow, murky pond from 1.7 feet to four feet.

Mill Pond Committee chairman Bob Woodruff appeared before selectmen on September 12 to discuss the possibility of placing an article on the warrant of the special town meeting on November 13 to ask for funding for a dredge project.

Over the last three weeks, the future of the Mill Pond has been a hot topic around town. Selectmen received dozens of letters regarding the future of the 2.5-acre pond.

This prompted a wave of letters to selectmen regarding the pond’s future. Some letters supported dredging, some opposed it, and some supported a third option of removing the dam to return it to its natural state.

No need to create controversy

Wednesday night, Mr. Woodruff told the standing-room-only crowd that his committee would no longer pursue passage of a warrant article to fund dredging.

Instead the committee would focus its efforts on pursuing the comprehensive watershed study. “We backed off the November submission: we don’t have our political act together, and we don’t want to compete with the police department and we don’t need to create controversy if we can avoid it,” Mr. Woodruff said.

The special town meeting is scheduled for November 13 at 7 pm at the West Tisbury School. Among other things, voters will consider an article asking for $80,000 to complete construction and bid documents for a new police station.

And although the pond committee was backing off the warrant article, Mr. Woodruff said he felt the pond’s problems were getting worse and that dredging was still needed.

“We think it’s filling in at an alarming rate, more than we thought, we are alarmed by the spread of water willow,” he said. “If you have any sort of visual memory of the pond year-to-year that rusty colored emergent is now working its way out deep in the pond that tells me that something is happening there.”

Grant opportunities

Selectmen voted 3-0 to authorize the Mill Pond Committee to pursue grant opportunities to fund the watershed study.

In an email to the Mill Pond committee dated September 18, consultant Carl Nielson of ESS engineers said his firm was preparing a grant application to the state Department of Environmental Protection, to fund the entire watershed study.

“The mud can wait since it will not go anywhere,” Mr. Nielson wrote in his email. “The watershed work will be essential anyway if you are to move forward with dredging, so getting that piece done is not a bad first step.”

Mr. Woodruff said that ESS also expressed optimism that a study from the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP) on Tisbury Great Pond could be released soon, which might have suggestions or insight regarding the Mill Pond watershed.

Selectman Richard Knabel said he supported the watershed study, but he said the town will still need to make a tough decision at some point regarding dredging. “It seems to me none of these studies are going to change the condition on the Mill Pond,” he said. “We can go on spending all sorts of money on these sort of studies, but none of these studies are going to make the decision for us.”

Differing views

Officials expressed optimism this week that the watershed study could go a long ways toward helping people reach consensus on the severity of the problem in Mill Pond and whether or not to dredge.

For the time being, there are significant differences of opinion regarding the pond, even within the Mill Pond committee.

Committee member Craig Saunders said there is ample evidence that material is accumulating on the bottom of the pond, but he did not believe there was any immediate danger of the pond drying up.

“I don’t agree with Bob [Woodruff],” he said. “I don’t think the pond is accumulating sediment at an alarming rate. But it is accumulating sediment.”

Meanwhile committee member Kent Healy, also a civil engineer, said there was evidence the depth of the pond was increasing in some places. He said the town should wait on the results of the watershed study before doing anything else.

“If you want to preserve the pond you must pay attention to the inflow and outflow,” Mr. Healy said. “If you are going to…conduct a program based on measurements of water depth you better make sure you have the right measurements.”

Other residents expressed support for dredging. “We are centered on our beaches and pond, if we don’t take care of them we will be killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Barbara Day.

Others, like Virginia Jones, opposed such a plan. She said she remembered the last time the pond was dredged in 1948. “I can tell you what an unmitigated disaster it was,” she said. “There was dead and dying lamprey eels… There were squashed turtles on the road, and there was vegetation and slime everywhere. It really was a mess.”

Prudy Burt advocates removing the dam and allowing the pond to revert to its pre-colonial state as a marsh with a stream running through it. She believes that a free-flowing stream would support healthy populations of native species such as brook trout.

“I firmly believe that our history on this land does not trump the previous thousands of years of history,” she said. “People always say [the pond] has always been here, but it hasn’t always been here: it’s been here for 300 to 400 years.”

In the end, selectmen agreed to host a public forum in the near future to discuss the various options regarding the future of the Mill Pond.