Maintaining balance

Film explores the ecosystem of the Island’s Great Ponds.


Yes, Martha’s Vineyard is surrounded by water, but it’s not just the ocean and Vineyard Sound but our 16 great ponds that make the Island so special. Great ponds are any natural body of water more than 10 acres. Those here, because of their interaction with the ocean, are some of the most unique ecosystems in the world. Recently, many of these ponds appear to be at a tipping point, with algae blooms choking out shellfish, and cyanobacteria making the water unsafe for pets and humans. When director Ollie Becker of Circuit Films, part of the parent organization Circuit Arts, was inspired to look into the problem, a partnership bloomed with the Vineyard Conservation Society to produce “Great Ponds, Episode 1: On Our Watch.” It is the first of a three-part series documenting the health of these spectacular coastal waters, and what the community is doing to help. The project grew out of his own experience having grown up here in the late 1980s and 1990s, but when he moved back in 2018, it seemed to him that the ponds had changed.

While we do learn about the science behind the dangers facing the great ponds, Becker skillfully creates a powerful impact through stunning photography and frank conversations with spokespeople from organizations such as the Great Pond Foundation, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, and concerned community members — all of whom speak passionately about the health of these precious waters. Just some include Carol Forgione, a nurse at Island Health Care whose son was sickened by exposure to cyanobacteria; Tom Chase, director of conservation strategies at the Nature Conservancy, sharing memories of the abundance of the ponds when he was growing up; as well as David Two Arrows Vanderhoop, co-founder of Sassafras Earth Education, and a Aquinnah Wampanoag elder. He tells a beautiful story of hunting for ducks on the pond as a child, but taken by the magnitude of the beauty of them feeding on the shore, he and his companions left it all in peace. 

While we know about the dangers of fossil fuels and single-use plastics, what you might not know is the great danger related to too much nitrogen in the water. Emily Reddington, Great Ponds Foundation executive director and a biologist by training, explains that nitrogen is a normal part of life; part of the building blocks of any living thing. It’s most of what makes up the air. She says, “The problem is that once nitrogen gets into salty water bodies, it works something like fertilizer, which makes a few types of organisms grow out of control that in turn use up all the resources and put decay in the water. Too much nitrogen destroys the healthy resilience and balance of the ecosystem. What we want to see in our ponds is an abundance of plants and animals that grow and die and compensate for each other.” 

The nitrogen comes into the ponds through wastewater from septic systems, cesspools, wastewater treatment facilities, and runoff that carries chemicals from fertilizers. Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, speaks about the huge growth and size of the houses on the great ponds that are too close to the water, and are leaking nitrogen into them. He points out the scope of the threat, saying that there’s been more than a 30 percent increase in population in each of the past several decades.

In the film we learn about nitrogen removal systems, which can remove 90-plus percent of the nitrogen from wastewater before it is released. But as John Smith, president of KleanTu WasteWater Treatment Technologies, says, “It can’t be a few people using innovative alternatives. It has to be the 100, to 200, to 300, to 400 homes doing it to have a major impact in reducing nitrogen in the ponds and lagoons.”

Becker shares that nitrogen removal systems help. But, he says, “Also, if you live near the pond, so is leaving a natural barrier of plants intact, so the root systems can absorb some of the nitrogen. Making the choice not to fertilize your garden, and particularly your lawn, reducing the size of it, or being OK if it’s not lime green all summer.”

“Our great ponds are rare and precious, and people love them,” Reddington says. “With the right science, we can put the solutions that exist in the place where there is the biggest problem. But the resources and the problem aren’t always in the same place. You need to have science and community partnerships to solve them. The ponds mean a ton to the community, and it’s going to take a community to come up with the solution that protects them.”

“Great Ponds, Episode 1: On Our Watch” will be screened on Thursday, August 4, at 7 pm at the Edgartown library, followed by a discussion with the director Ollie Becker, Emily Reddington from the Great Pond Foundation, and Angela Luckey from BiodiversityWorks.