Aquinnah eying Cliff erosion mitigation

A grant to slow stormwater erosion at the Aquinnah Cliffs may also help to return a historic restaurant to Wampanoag ownership.


Groundwater seeping through the Aquinnah Cliffs may be causing erosion, and the Aquinnah climate and energy committee is pursuing a state grant to evaluate ways to slow that erosion down. 

Committee chair Bill Lake says officials are yet to apply, but that he has in mind $250,000 to research and test antierosion methods. 

The grant may also fund the purchase of the Aquinnah Shop restaurant by the Aquinnah Land Initiative (ALI), a land conservation group run by Wampanoag women. He says that the Aquinnah Shop’s price is $2 million, but that he does not know how much of that cost the grant might fund. 

Lake’s committee is preparing to apply for a state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant, which would help hire hydrologists to study the erosive effects of groundwater. The study would also determine how those impacts could be eliminated.

“The MVP Action Grant offers financial resources to communities that are seeking to advance priority climate adaptation actions, to address climate change impacts resulting from extreme weather, sea level rise, inland and coastal flooding, severe heat, and other climate impacts,” reads the state’s webpage on the program. Municipalities that receive the grant are required to match 25 percent of the total project cost, and provide a brief project case study.

“The Cliffs are eroding really rapidly, due to groundwater seeping out,” Lake told the Times. “Rainwater or whatever comes down goes through the sand, and it may be hitting a clay layer which is sort of impermeable. And then it flows laterally out, and comes out through the Cliffs. If you could drill a couple of holes — as well as through that clay layer — then the water could go down into the main aquifer. There’s one big aquifer for the Island. If the water could reach the main aquifer, it flows ultimately into the ocean, but in a way that doesn’t affect the Cliffs.”

Lake says that during communications with the MVP office, the grant contacts said that they might be able to help fund the ALI’s purchase of the Aquinnah Shop, a historic restaurant located on the Cliffs. The restaurant last operated in 2022, and saw its first non-Wampanoag ownership in 2016.

“[MVP] funds are also available to return properties that were once in indigenous ownership back to indigenous ownership,” says Lake. “And it just so happens that the Aquinnah Shop was always in indigenous ownership until … it was sold to some non-native owners. There is at least the possibility that we could include in our grant money to help the ALI buy the Aquinnah Shop.”

In November, the national Native Land Conservancy purchased the restaurant property, intending to hold onto it until it could be bought by the recently formed and locally based ALI. The Cliffs themselves are sacred land to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Due to its cliffside location, the restaurant’s foundation is itself subject to rapid erosion.

In December, the climate and energy committee declared to the MVP office its intent to seek funds for hydrology studies to slow erosion, as well as for the purchase of the Aquinnah Shop.

If the grant is approved, Lake says, community input will be solicited. 

“Anything we might do, we want to make sure we don’t have unintended consequences on the water table and so forth,” Lake said. “So that [$250,000] includes some money for having meetings … to make sure that the community knows what we’re doing, and supports it.”

Lake adds that Aquinnah first participated in the MVP process several years ago, when residents took part in meetings that secured the town a prerequisite MVP certification.

Though the committee first thought to apply for an MVP grant last year, Lake credits the current effort to hydrologists who helped move the Gay Head Light in 2015. Moving the lighthouse around 130 feet, Lake says, protected it from erosion for another hundred years. “It was the hydrology work that was done then that … sort of confirmed that there was groundwater coming out through the Cliffs, and that if there was a way to prevent that from happening, that we’d slow down the erosion.”

Lake adds that the current MVP preparations are the first effort to seek significant funds against erosion at the Cliffs since the lighthouse was moved.

Research on groundwater and erosion at the Cliffs goes back much further than 2015. A report from 2010 on erosion there cites a Ph.D. thesis from 1970, authored by Jerome P. Long. Landslides at the Cliffs were a focus of Long’s paper. “The writer believes that several major factors are responsible for creating these landslides,” stated Long. “Groundwater seepage is probably the major cause for the landsliding, as rainfall infiltration and slide movement rates seem to be related.”

Lake hopes to stop groundwater from contributing to erosion at the Cliffs, but says the overall problem will persist. “Erosion is going to be a problem regardless of the groundwater issue, just because the Cliffs are out there exposed to the weather, and climate change is making sea level rise and storms cause more erosion,” he says.

If the committee’s application succeeds, Lake says, work done during the research phase will not be noticeable to anyone nearby. Implementing a solution, however, might involve noticeable work, and some interference with use of the cliffs. Lake adds that any such implementation phase is at least a year away.

The MVP office has scheduled a further discussion with the committee for Feb. 14. “I hope that’s a good omen, that it’s on Valentine’s Day,” Lake said at the committee’s Feb. 5 meeting.

According to Lake, MVP grant applications are due in spring.

The Times reached out to ALI president Wenonah Madison for comment.