Mill Brook restoration dispute nearing resolution

The decade-old project to restore the head of the river has stalled, but an agreement is in the works.

The Sheriff Meadow's Foundation is hoping to replace a failed culvert and a dispute with another Island nonprofit and nearby residents appears close to a resolution. Sometimes, as shown here, the river doesn't flow through the existing culvert. - Courtesy Prudy Burt

Two Island nonprofits caught in a lengthy dispute over the restoration of the headwaters of a river snaking through West Tisbury and Chilmark say they are close to a resolution.

Officials with both the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and Island Grown Initiative, who have been at odds over the replacement of a culvert at the head of Mill Brook for years, say that they are in agreement with next steps. All that needs to be done is the work.

“I think we all want to resolve this amicably,” Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore told The Times recently.

It has been nearly a year since the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation won a favorable ruling in Dukes County Superior Court that gave the nonprofit conditional permission to move forward with the project to restore fish passage and improve water quality, but progress has since stalled. 

The issue surrounds a number of wells and a former water-bottling company that used freshwater from the area. Island Grown, as well as residents in the area, want to preserve their water supply, and they’ve argued that allowing the river to run more freely with an improved culvert could have an impact on their wells. 

Moore told The Times that the foundation is working to drill a new well for a nearby landowner, and it is hiring a specialist to work with Island Grown to make sure its supply is not impacted by the culvert work.

Moore says that they’ve been further delayed because the only well driller on the Island has been tied up with other work, which may require the nonprofit to hire an off-Island contractor with resources so limited.

“If we can resolve these issues,” Moore said, the project should be able to move forward. 

Rebecca Haag, outgoing executive director of Island Grown Initiative, is in agreement that the work could resolve the issue and allow the project to move forward.

“We think it’s going to be resolved, and it’s very close,” Haag said. “It’s just that all these things take time.”

How we got here

Mill Brook provides some of the only habitat on the Island for native brook trout, and it’s one of the only places in all of Massachusetts where the threatened American brook lamprey lives. 

The culvert at the beginning of the river — as well several manmade impediments throughout the brook — has been leading to a rise in water temperature, according to new data presented by a West Tisbury town committee, which is threatening fish species. The high temperatures are also likely leading to environmental concerns for the greater watershed.

Further chafing environmentalists, the restoration effort has the distinction of being the only project in Massachusetts approved and funded by the state Division of Ecological Restoration to be appealed through the courts. The state has provided a number of grants for the culvert replacement, totaling more than $200,000 over the past several years. 

The Chilmark conservation commission approved the proposal in 2021. In its application, Sheriff’s Meadow argued that the existing system is decades old, and is not effectively letting the river flow, which is making it difficult for fish to travel downriver. Debris also clogs the culvert, which is leading to high temperatures as the sun bakes down on pooling, stagnant water. 

After ConCom approval, neighbor to the project Frank Dunkl and his family, and Island Grown Initiative, filed an appeal against Sheriff’s Meadow.

The Dunkls ran a water company, called Chilmark Spring Water, using the natural springs in the area. They closed the company down about a decade ago, and while they no longer supply water, they say the project is threatening that water supply. 

Island Grown Initiative purchased the 23-acre Dunkl homestead in 2013, with the intention of preserving and protecting the water source. Island Grown maintains that the well could be used as an emergency water source for the three up-Island towns, as well as members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag.

The plaintiffs have claimed that not enough study has been done to show that the water source won’t be impacted, and that producing a more free-flowing and better culvert may drain the wetland in the upper sections of the brook, and dry up their wells.

But after almost two years, in February 2023, Judge Mark Gilde in Dukes Superior Court ruled in favor of Sheriff’s Meadow, for the most part. In his decision, he recognized the plaintiffs’ concerns. Agreeing that the impacts to the wells hadn’t been studied enough, he said that any work “must not begin until the Applicant has fully satisfied the concerns raised” about preserving the water supply.

The Dunkls could not be reached for this story. But Haag says that Sheriff’s Meadow’s work should resolve Island Grown’s concerns.

“We want to ensure that it is protected,” Moore said of the Dunkl water source. “We have a resolution, and we think it will be resolved soon.” 

New data

The culvert replacement ties into a much larger story of Mill Creek, where there are dams and other manmade impediments along the river that, like the culvert, lead to pooling of water and rising temperatures. It’s been a contentious issue for decades, with passionate voices on both sides. And for some concerned about the overall health of the Tisbury Great Pond watershed, if the culvert replacement project can go forward, it could be a falling domino that will encourage others to remove manmade dams.

Historically, Mill Brook has been a place of interest. In the 1830s, a former mayor of Boston, Dr. Jerome Smith, wrote in his book “Natural History of the Fishes of Massachusetts” that he was walking around Mill Brook when his attention suddenly turned to the river. 

“Never do we recollect so fully to have realized the expression of its being ‘alive with fish’ as is on this occasion,” he wrote.

Visiting the upper sections of Mill Brook today, it’s a long way from what Smith described. While past studies have found many different fish species in the system, it’s getting harder and harder for species to find the right habitat, according to state fisheries experts.

Recent data compiled by the Mill Brook watershed management committee — a West Tisbury town group made up of scientists and researchers with field experience — show that the system continues to struggle. While members of the committee have been recording data on the river for years, their most recent tabulations are from 2021.

Among the findings is the high level of phosphorus. For saltwater bodies, the bad word is typically nitrogen. But for freshwater systems, high phosphorus can lead to a loss of oxygen, and eventually fish kills and algae blooms. The committee hasn’t seen that type of fish kill yet, but there’s a concern that if conditions don’t improve, they may start. 

But perhaps more concerning is water temperature. At the headwaters of the stream, temperatures have been recorded between 50° and 60°, the temperature of groundwater. That cool water is good for the native fish. But as the water flows downstream and is impacted by impediments like the culvert, the temperature rises. 

Prudy Burt, a member of the watershed committee, says temperatures routinely hit 90° in some sections of the brook, which is too hot for cold-water species.

As water flows downstream, these manmade barriers slow the water down. And as it pools, the water absorbs the sun’s rays. Burt said that she’s collected samples at the impediments — both on the up- and downstream sides — and noted a significant rise in temperature. 

“Not only are they a hindrance to fish passage, they also warm water up, which is tough for fish and the overall health of the river,” Burt said.

Burt and the West Tisbury committee aren’t the only ones to make the distinction. State fish expert Steve Hurley completed a study on the river in 2012, finding not just brook trout and the endangered brook lamprey, but several other species. He said that some of the native fish have only been able to survive by sticking to cool pockets of the river. He recommends removing some of the barriers to help the fish habitat.

The watershed committee has also set up data collection monitors that will allow them to track the flow of the brook, and give a sense of how much nitrogen and phosphorus are flowing into Tisbury Great Pond. The data won’t necessarily provide the source, but with the state and federal government potentially clamping down on nitrogen pollution in local estuaries, the data collected on Mill Brook could help in finding a way to mitigate the impact on the Great Pond. 

The watershed committee has turned its data over to a local research consulting group to come up with a comprehensive report on the state of the brook. Hoarsely Witten is working on that report, with the expectation of presenting a final version this spring.

Ultimately, the committee wants to work with the West Tisbury Select Board to come up with action items on how to mitigate some of the water quality issues in Mill Brook; they envision some kind of public forum in the spring as well. The plan is to eventually discuss the finalized report with the Chilmark Select Board.

“We want to make informed decisions based on data and science,” Burt said. 

While in the past, there’s been a lot of passion swirling around Mill Brook and the removal of these impediments — as well as the replacement of the Roth Woodlands culvert — Burt said it’s important to have the facts down. “We are providing a rational framework,” she said.

Of Roth Woodlands, Burt says that she’s keeping the faith and hoping that the culvert will eventually be replaced.

“Once one goes, people will see these amazing results,” Burt said. “There’s only one time when an excavator in a wetland is a good thing, and that’s when they are taking down a dam.”



  1. Years of study by state fish ecologist Steve Hurley and the Mill Brook watershed management committee have documented the outstanding natural qualities of the brook and the many benefits of the proposed culvert replacement project to the watershed and ecosystem. Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation has advanced the project cautiously and supported by sound hydrological studies. It is now time to implement this project and then to begin working with landowners throughout the watershed to conserve it fully and to allow Mill Brook to run freely once again.

  2. Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation launched the Mill Brook Headwaters Restoration Project in 2014 with a $40,000 grant from the Division of Ecological Restoration, which to date has invested approximately $229,000 in the project. Ten years later, the reason a failed culvert that acts as a de facto dam remains at the headwaters of Mill Brook falls squarely on the shoulders of Island Grown Initiative and land-owning members of the Dunkle, and Doyle families. Curiously, the story does not identify the Doyles, who live on the other side of North Road on Seven Gates Farm and were a principal party to the lawsuit.
    Their opposition has been based on the arguable hydrological claim that eliminating a shallow man-made impoundment would affect their wells. Or that up-Island communities would look to IGI’s wooded lot for an emergency water source at some dark point in the future.
    What rankles me is from the start, IGI, a respected nonprofit, should have supported SMF’s project to allow Mill Brook to flow naturally at its headwaters and not joined in a costly and ill-advised effort to block it.
    Their meritless legal challenge is over. SMF has generously promised to dig a new well to appease the Doyles. And Mill Brook continues to suffer. Last summer, the impoundment exceeded ninety degrees. Get on with it.

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