Massachusetts needs to own nitrogen cleanup


The town of Tisbury deserves praise for developing a plan to address wastewater issues in Tashmoo and the rest of the community. With Massachusetts regulators proposing new,  statewide Title 5 regulations, Martha’s Vineyard residents could be getting hit with hefty new fees or taxes. Having a solid plan to address the cleanup, and — maybe just as important — how to pay for the cleanup, is better done sooner than later.

But Tisbury — and the rest of the Vineyard — shouldn’t be funding this alone. The state needs to step in with a significant amount of funding.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) is proposing the establishment of what they’re calling “nitrogen-sensitive areas.” These are watersheds where coastal bays and ponds have been, and continue to be, polluted with nitrogen, generally by backyard septic systems. Nitrogen from our toilets eventually seeps into our groundwater, which slowly makes its way into our estuaries: our bays, rivers, ponds, and other coastal water bodies.

All of the homeowners within these nitrogen-sensitive areas would be required to upgrade their septic systems — if they haven’t already — to the “best-available, nitrogen-reducing technology” within five years of these rules going into place, as the state proposal reads. Those units, commonly referred to as innovative alternative systems, or I/A systems, can cost a homeowner roughly $40,000 to install, if not more.

Instead of requiring residents to install these systems within five years, a town or municipality can come up with a targeted plan to address nitrogen pollution, what the state is calling a watershed permit. That could mean building sewers, promoting natural filtration systems like shellfish or floating wetlands, installing these I/A systems, or a combination of all of the above.

Tisbury officials have begun presenting a plan to the public that would require, in preliminary discussions, about 700 of these I/A systems in the Tashmoo watershed. 

With rough, back-of-the-envelope math, that’s over $30 million to install 700 of these systems. And that doesn’t account for the entire cleanup of Tashmoo, which includes expanding the town’s sewer line. 

Nor would it account for the rest of the town. There’s also the watershed entering into the Lagoon, which data from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Martha’s Vineyard Commission show is in worse shape than Tashmoo, never mind that it’s a more complicated puzzle to solve, with much of the nitrogen coming from Oak Bluffs, and not just Tisbury. It will require regionalization to clean up the Lagoon, which hasn’t come easily on the Island.

Whether MassDEP does bring this proposal forward or not, reducing nitrogen loading into our estuaries is the right thing to do. As Cape Cod has proven — the canary in the coalmine, if you will — nitrogen pollution is real. There are fish kills on the Cape, bad odors, thick muck on the bottom of estuaries choking out life, and there’s a risk of losing the natural resources that spur the tourism industry there. The Vineyard isn’t there yet, but having no plan to address the pollution won’t stop the Island from getting there. There is an opportunity to be proactive.

Financing these plans will be a hefty political challenge. For the residents of Tisbury who may have recently upgraded or built a new septic system for thousands of dollars, and then are asked to upgrade that system for around $40,000, it isn’t just unfair; it could be unattainable for many residents. Even for residents who haven’t recently upgraded, that price tag is daunting. There are existing grants available, and possible zero-interest loans that will help.

But the state has a major obligation to help with financing. By proposing these new, watershed-permit regulations, they are effectively admitting that the current Title 5 regulations have been ineffective. The septic systems MassDEP has been requiring for years, which homeowners have paid lots of money to install, have not addressed nitrogen pollution. They may be more effective than a cesspool or just dumping wastewater into a hole in the ground, but they haven’t worked well enough.

By admitting that what they have approved hasn’t been working, the state is saying they are also part of the problem. They should step up with a funding package that could help in a meaningful way.


  1. There is no mention in this article about how the Dukes County Commission has been working with the Island wide Health Agents, the MVC , and the MV Airport Commission to allocate funds to help address this issue. Please be more considerate of the work that is being done by local officials. We are sensitive to this issue and acting on it. It is not a simple or rapidly solved issue but there are many eyes on it and working hard to find solutions.

    • Why aren’t the same groups working to address the issues that can reduce nitrogen NOW? The targeted wastewater efforts are a start, but as the article points out, still prohibitively expensive for some. It will take time to actually implement the septic systems. Put some of that funding into intense enforcement of fertilizer regulations in Tashmoo and the Lagoon. Funding the containment of road runoff at boat ramps as the Cape Harbors are doing, funding eliminating the pipes draining into Tashmoo and the Lagoon. For one contractor, we’re getting to it is no excuse. Fund additional contractors rather than relying on one and get it done! The bright green algae washing up along the mid-eastern shore of Tashmoo is new and disturbing. Is that coming down the hill?

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