One walk on the high school athletic fields leads to the obvious conclusion that the fields are in dire need of a significant upgrade. Right now, with no sign of the sparse grass coming to life, there’s lots of hard dirt shining through, and the surface is noticeably bumpy and irregular.
There are now six rectangular fields or practice areas on the high school property that teams use, or once used, and not one is true or flat. The practice area inside the track has essentially been abandoned by the football team, because an already mediocre field has become unusable and unsafe. None of the existing fields provide the essential predictable footing and impact cushion necessary for reasonable player safety. The fields can no longer be repaired by simple top-dressing and overseeding; they’re on a downward spiral.
Come to a game or take your own stroll across the fields, and I’m confident you’ll see the huge problem we’re facing if we’re serious as a community about actually providing safe, playable, reliable fields for our high school athletes.
The high school has three options: The first is to do nothing, but the status quo is not viable for several reasons, including player safety. Moving on, there’s the choice of materials and surfaces. The second option is to choose natural grass or artificial turf for the fields. The last option is a combination of both grass and turf, the best of both worlds from many perspectives.
Viewed practically, the all-grass option is not feasible. It will require taking one field completely offline to rehabilitate and rebuild. Taking just a single field offline pushes athletic events onto another field, one already in poor condition and then forced to take on even more traffic and use. And here’s the reality: Taking one grass field offline for the extensive repair required at this stage means it cannot be used for three consecutive athletic seasons — fall, spring, and fall again.
Summer is the second worst season to grow grass, after winter, and an especially poor time to fertilize. The problem is the high school athletic schedule rules out grass maintenance during preferred seasons.
Then there’s the environmental perspective. The high school athletic fields are located in either the Lagoon Pond or Sengekontacket Pond watersheds. The groundwater beneath the fields flows toward one of the two ponds, depending on whether it is on the easterly or westerly side of the property. Each grass soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, or football field will require approximately a ton of fertilizer (assuming 10 percent nitrogen found in 10-0-0 product), and approximately 1 million gallons of irrigation water each year, per field.
Assuming nearly all of the applied nitrogen gets taken up by the grass but a small amount escapes to the groundwater, the Lagoon Pond nitrogen-loading rate established by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will be exceeded by between 30 and 70 percent, depending upon what recharge rate for rainfall is used in the calculation. This nitrogen-leaching calculation is based on the highly optimistic assumption that any natural grass fertilization program on the high school property can be done as successfully as one of the most respected, monitored and carefully looked-after programs in operation in the country — a nearly impossible standard to meet.
Both Lagoon and Sengekontacket Ponds are major focuses of a dedicated regulatory effort that includes taxpayer funding to reduce nitrogen loading and improve the pond water quality. For almost a year now, some community members advocating for an all-grass solution have said they are “working on an alternate plan.” However, there hasn’t been a single specific action item identified or accomplished to illustrate progress on delivering an all-grass solution. Perhaps that’s because there are significant practical and environmental challenges to succeeding with 100 percent grass.
The best and perhaps only opportunity to both address the immediate needs of our student athletes and set the stage for successfully upgrading the existing grass fields is to build the single artificial turf field with organic infill, as proposed by the MRVHS school committee and the private nonprofit MV@PLAY.
Every four-year state college and university in the Massachusetts State University system has one or more artificial turf fields. Middlebury College, the home of renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben, has four artificial turf fields. The attempt to discredit the material’s safety, especially with organic infill, simply cannot be supported by fact. One artificial turf field can support four times the number of athletic events that a single natural grass field can, and the impact to Sengekontacket and Lagoon Ponds is nonexistent compared with grass.
The Phase 1 proposal by MV@Play and the school, constructed entirely through donor contributions, will provide our high school athletes with the best, most consistent and safest playing surface feasible. At the same time, the new field can accommodate the relocation of practice and games from existing fields, all while providing the grass with an essential ingredient to success: rest. It’s time to combine the grass and turf initiatives and begin to actually realize the long-term vision of improving the high school fields for our athletes.
Matt Poole is the parent of of two former MVRHS soccer players and a MVRHS field hockey player, the Edgartown health agent, and a member of MV@Play.