Martha’s Vineyard residents could eventually be on the hook for either multimillion-dollar nitrogen reduction plans or installing new septic-system technology in their backyards, but not yet.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) recently finalized new septic system regulations for Cape Cod to reverse nitrogen pollution in the region’s watersheds. These new regulations may force some homeowners to install nitrogen-removing technology — estimated by some to cost as much as $45,000 — in areas close to coastal estuaries within five years if pollution isn’t remediated. Or they could force municipalities to finalize 20-year watershed permits that would likely include the installation of sewers, which in some towns is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Although the Vineyard was included in preliminary reports about the changes, the Island will not be impacted by the new regulations passed in June, at least not yet.
The reaction to the Vineyard not being included in the new rules is mixed, with some water-quality advocates saying the decision will further delay remediation. Others say that progress will continue regardless.
A spokesperson for MassDEP, Edmund Coletta, told The Times the exclusion was because the Island was not as far along in developing local water protection measures, compared with Cape communities.
On the Islands, some towns have been developing targeted plans to address nitrogen pollution.
Lagoon Pond Association president Sherry Countryman said her organization was “deeply concerned” about the Island not being included in the state’s regulations. She said the Massachusetts Estuary Project, which determined thresholds for substances like nitrogen, was completed over a decade ago, and “very little” has been done to clean up the saltwater estuaries and ponds since then.
Countryman said the Lagoon Pond watershed — shared by Tisbury and Oak Bluffs — is “particularly impaired,” and is in need of help soon. The Estuary Project report from a decade found evidence of that.
Eelgrass, an ecologically important species that is a part of marine life habitats, “covered the pond” in 1995, Countryman said. According to reports from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the water quality of Lagoon Pond improved between 2019 and 2020, but eelgrass, a marine plant species used to reduce nutrient buildup, was “present but declining” by 2020. “Now there is none,” Countryman said.
“We are, however, hopeful and optimistic that the Island towns will continue to work diligently and quickly to implement wastewater/watershed plans that will improve the health of our estuaries expeditiously,” Countryman said in an email. “Time is not on our side.”
On the town level, however, officials say that regardless of what the state decides, they are moving to address nitrogen pollution.
Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said the town will continue to work on a targeted water management plan for Lake Tashmoo — which currently includes some 700 innovative alternative septic systems — and the townwide comprehensive water management plan, which includes Lagoon Pond. These plans would include various options to reduce nitrogen levels, such as cluster septic systems or on-site systems.
According to Valley, the targeted water management plan for Lake Tashmoo is anticipated to be ready in July. Meanwhile, the comprehensive water management plan has a longer time frame. However, Valley told The Times she does not think the new regulations would have changed much for Tisbury, since the town had already been working on nitrogen reduction.
“We’ve been working on that for many years now,” she said.
In Edgartown, town administrator James Hagerty said his town is making decisions as if the new regulations were already in effect. He expects Edgartown to be included within the next five years, considering there are “nitrogen-sensitive areas” within the town.
Hagerty also pointed to the degradation of the ponds, which he said is not as bad as those on the Cape, but isn’t “too far behind.”
There’s also the cost to think about when it comes to upgrading Title 5 septic systems.
Hagerty emphasized the need to prepare in advance for the regulations, saying that it will be expensive. He pointed to the example of Yarmouth, where they are spending $200 million on the first phase of its comprehensive wastewater plan.
“We need to start planning now,” Hagerty said.
In Oak Bluffs, select board chair Emma Green-Beach, who is also the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, said people may “freak out” over the expenses associated with nitrogen reduction. She said a potential concern is who should be paying for the changes, particularly since ponds are public spaces, and the septic systems being replaced and monitored would be primarily on private property.
Comprehensive wastewater management plans are the path towns should take for improving water conditions, according to Green-Beach, and she said Oak Bluffs is one of the municipalities closest to completing one. She said denitrifying systems are a part of the plans, alongside upgrades to sewage plants. Edgartown is in the midst of developing a comprehensive wastewater management plan as well.
Other than the costs, Green-Beach expressed mixed feelings regarding the Title 5 regulations.
“I’m glad to see them make these modifications, but there’s always … impacts downstream that aren’t necessarily anticipated,” she said.
Green-Beach said all of the Island ponds have experienced degradation, which largely stems from septic systems. While Title 5 was a “really important step” from an environmental standpoint, it is not without concerns.
According to Green-Beach, Title 5 systems are not designed to directly reduce nitrogen, but instead are meant to mainly control bacteria. She said innovative/alternative septic systems, otherwise known as I/A systems, can remove 90 percent of nitrogen.
Green-Beach also pointed out septic systems are not the only sources of nitrogen. Nitrogen can be found in other sources, such as fertilizer, and some amounts is naturally found in the soil. Additionally, groundwater, a lot of which ends up in Island ponds, can be a route for nitrogen to spread.
Ben Robinson, an avid climate change activist and Tisbury official, also said the exclusion does not change the progress of his town’s water management work.
“We saw where the Cape ended up if we don’t deal with the nitrogen,” Robinson said. He added that Cape towns have a higher population density than the Vineyard, and the Island has controlled development. However, he said Martha’s Vineyard will need to get rid of new nitrogen buildup through extended sewering and enhanced I/A systems.
As for the Conservation Law Foundation, which helped push the state to enact these regulations on the Cape, it is keeping an eye out.
“We don’t have too much info on the state’s thought process for including the Cape but leaving out the Islands and other areas,” spokesperson Jake O’Neill said in a statement. “As far as we can tell, the state is taking this problem one step at a time and starting with the Cape, which is a big step in the right direction. There’s definitely more work to do in other areas, so we’ll be staying involved in this issue.”