Martha’s Vineyard Commission drills down on water quality

Research shows urgent need for nitrogen mitigation, while homegrown technology shows groundbreaking potential.

John Smith explains NitROE tank technology, which is being used for the first time in a pilot program on Martha’s Vineyard. — Barry Stringfellow

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has completed an exhaustive study on the Island’s coastal ponds. After a year of weekly meetings, over 600 water sample tests, and extensive analysis, the commission’s Water Quality Committee drafted new water quality standards that will, after public hearings, become part of the development of regional impact (DRI) approval process.

A 29-page draft of the new policy was presented to the full commission at its regular meeting Thursday night.

The new research, done in conjunction with the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP), confirms that nitrogen levels in coastal ponds have increased sharply in recent years.
“Twelve of our 15 coastal ponds are in trouble,” committee member and commissioner Doug Sederholm of West Tisbury said. “If we do nothing, eventually they’re going to die.”

Increasing nitrogen levels are responsible for creating more frequent algae blooms, and phytoplankton-clouded water blocks sunlight from the eelgrass, a key component in the estuarine pond ecosystem. Increased nitrogen also means decreased oxygen, which will decimate shellfish and finfish populations if the rising nitrogen tide is not reversed.

According to the newly released data, also available at, to reach acceptable nitrogen loads in the ponds, Lagoon Pond has to reduce nitrogen load by 35 percent; Lake Tashmoo by 32 percent; Menemsha Pond by 47 percent; and Tisbury Great Pond by 19 percent.

The updated commission policy only regulates DRIs, which account for a small fraction of development on Martha’s Vineyard. “There’s nothing we can do about that, but we can at least set an example that will help the towns in approaching this,” Sederholm said.

“We have to get the message out that more has to be done,” commission executive director Adam Turner said. “There’s a lot of places on this Island where sewering is just not an option. We hope the towns will find ways to follow our lead. They have more regulatory jurisdiction than we do.”

“If we have dead ponds, it’s going to affect our quality of life, our economy, property values, fishing,” Sederholm said. “Also, if the quality of the ponds gets bad enough, you can be sued under the Clean Water Act, which happened on the Cape. If you want to see some dying ponds, go to the Cape. They are facing many millions of dollars for sewering.”
The MVC water quality policy was last updated in 2007, which was at the early stage of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP).

“We didn’t have a lot of MEP reports at that time,” Sederholm said. “Eleven years is way too long. We tried to put a modest cap on nitrogen [in 2007], but as we can see, it was nowhere near enough. This should be considered an interim policy, updated every two to three years.”

Sederholm stressed the policy is not a cure to the situation, but an attempt to slow down the rate of impairment. “As technology improves, we can require more stringent standards,” he said. “We’re expanding options for mitigation, and we’re trying to create some flexibility by allowing people to use pilot programs.”

Current Title V criteria are geared to thresholds of 25 to 35 parts per million of nitrogen in the effluent. In 2006, the most effective denitrification technology was reducing nitrogen levels to 19 parts per million. Available technology can now reduce levels to roughly 12 parts per million.


Homegrown technology

Despite the grim statistics, there is reason for optimism. A promising weapon in the nitrification battle is being tested in a pilot program on Martha’s Vineyard.

In a PowerPoint presentation, John Smith, Edgartown resident from Pennsylvania-based CES Clean Water, explained NitROE tank technology, which can be installed with new septic systems or retrofitted for use in existing Title V septic tanks. The two-compartment tank — typically 1,500 gallons — sits between the septic and the effluent bed; one chamber contains limestone, and the other contains wood chips. In the limestone chamber, ammonia is converted to nitrate, which then flows into the wood chip chamber. The bacterial activity of the wood chips converts the nitrate to nitrogen gas, which is released into the air instead of the ponds. The system works completely on gravity, except for a 40-watt fan. The NitROE tank can be retrofitted into older septic systems for about $10,000 to $15,000. Economy of scale could lower the cost in the future.
“I’ve been in the wastewater game since I was 18 years old,” Smith said. “I’m delighted I can present something that can make a difference here on the Island.”

In his work with CES Clean Water, Smith helped develop a larger system, SanTOE, for commercial uses. In his presentation he showed a SanTOE that CES Clean Water installed in Saudi Arabia, which now handles 1.5 million gallons of wastewater a day. “One hundred percent of that water is reused for irrigation and industrial processing,” he said.

A SanTOE prototype was installed at the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) in Barnstable in November. “Right now we’re treating 500 gallons per day,” Smith said. “We’re getting very good reduction.”

The NitROE uses the same technology, but on a residential scale. “I’m very confident we can get to 95 percent [nitrogen] reduction with NitROE,” Smith said.

The town of Tisbury is participating in the NitROE pilot program, funded in part with a $150,000 grant to the town from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The town and the commission also contribute funding and man-hours.

“Tisbury has done a fantastic job,” Sederholm said. “They’ve taken the lead, and I hope other towns will follow Tisbury’s example.”

Smith said he first came to the Vineyard in the 1970s, bought his Edgartown home in 1992, and although he intended to retire here, began developing the NitROE with encouragement and prodding from Michael and Melinda Loberg.

“I would not be standing here if not for Michael and Melinda Loberg initiating this in Tisbury,” Smith said. “They were instrumental in getting this going here on the Island, and helping to find the funding.”
Smith said testing shows wastewater going into septic tanks is around 70 milligrams of nitrogen per liter — or 70 parts per million. Currently Innovative/Alternative systems are geared toward reaching a threshold of 19 ppm. “I’m very confident we can get down to the five and 10 ppm range,” he said.

The NitROE system also has the flexibility to handle seasonal demand surges, a Vineyard variable that traditional sewering does not cost-effectively manage.

“The bacteria that we generate are not removed,” Smith said. “My experience tells me that will allow us to handle [seasonal demand]. In the offseason, the bacteria will go dormant, and when you start up, it kicks back in within one or two weeks.”

NitROE systems will be installed in 10 Tisbury homes, seven in the Lake Tashmoo watershed and three in the Lagoon Pond watershed. Five will have new Title V systems, and the other five will be retrofitted into existing Title V septic systems.

The first installation was done in December, a 2,000-gallon tank for a six-bedroom home, which has been dubbed “the Tisbury Model.”

Smith is assembling more “Tisbury models” at Goodale Construction in Oak Bluffs. He expects all 10 systems to be up and running by June.

“If we continue to get good results, the DEP will speed up the approval process for 30 more units for next year,” he said. “If that’s successful, the next year we go to the public.”