$26,000 grant will fund study of Island farms

Dukes County Conservation District gets grant to investigate nitrogen in Tisbury Great Pond.

The Dukes Soil Conservation District will look at the nitrogen load of the Tisbury Great Pond to determine the nutrient budgets for all farms within the watershed. — MVT File photo

The Dukes County Conservation District will receive $26,000 in a grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to study the effects of farms on nitrogen levels, according to a press release.

The Baker-Polito administration issued a total of $250,000 in grants to eight different conservation districts throughout the state.

For Dukes County, “[the] project will evaluate and take steps to reduce the impact of all farming activities within the watershed of the Tisbury Great Pond, particularly from nitrogen loading that has been identified as a problem by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project,” according to the press release.

Bill Wilcox, chairman of the conservation district, was delighted to hear the district would be receiving the grant. “Always pleasantly surprised to get funds like this,” he said.

The funds will be primarily used for surveys of farms around the Tisbury Great Pond and for public outreach educational programs, Mr. Wilcox said.

The survey will investigate the watershed-area farms, which are the primary source of the excess nitrogen. The conservation district knows excess nitrogen levels come from fertilizer and livestock manure around the pond, but they don’t know exactly how much. “We’re just determining how much we are dealing with here,” Mr. Wilcox said.

The conservation district is also using the grant to fund public outreach programs. Past programs have involved guest speakers talking about topics such as native pollinators, and climate and carbon. This spring the conservation district expects to offer more speakers, and a soil health workshop, which will help people determine the quality of their soil and how to improve it.

The survey and public outreach are both part of a collaborative effort. Partners that supported the effort include Island Grown Initiative, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and the Polly Hill Arboretum.

While the Tisbury Great Pond receives most of its excess nitrogen from manure, excessive nitrogen levels in Island watersheds are a huge issue mostly caused by three main sources: atmospheric sources, wastewater, and fertilizer, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission website. Too much nitrogen “over-fertilizes aquatic plants, resulting in odorous, unattractive ponds devoid of eelgrass, fish, and shellfish, adversely affecting the valuable tourist industry and coastal property values,” the site states.

According to the commission website:


  • Nitrogen deposited by rain from polluted air makes up 29 percent of total nitrogen pollution in the ponds. This number varies throughout Island watersheds.
  • Home septic systems contribute 62 percent of excess nitrogen levels in ponds. Island homes with Title V septic systems work well dealing with pathogens, but do little to deal with nitrogen, which primarily comes from urine in the wastewater.
  • Fertilizer used on lawns, farms, and gardens which drain into ponds through runoff and groundwater flow makes up 9 percent of nitrogen.

The commission has suggested several ways to tackle the nitrogen problem on its website. Solutions include wastewater treatment, tidal flushing, improving landscaping techniques, and nitrogen limits for projects near nitrogen-sensitive watersheds.

Aquaculture projects like the Living Shoreline Project in Felix Neck, which the Times wrote about in August, are also being used.