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Quality of Island Watersheds Should Be Priority for Everyone

Water. It is a key to life. At times it is our ally. Other times it is our adversary, as was the case for many during and after Hurricane Sandy. The lesson was clear: we have only one choice — to work with water, not fight it.

Many individuals and organizations have been involved with the longstanding challenge to address water quality issues on the Vineyard. It is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as a community in the coming years.

A recent op-ed in the Gazette by Anna Edey titled “Greenfilters Needed to Cut Nitrogen Pollution” illustrates the degree of passion this topic generates. I agree with many of Anna’s statements, but feel that a key to success in facing the water quality challenge was not emphasized. And that is the requirement that we work together as a community to encourage a rational response from governmental and environmental protection regulators, whom we must regard as partners in this effort.

We also need to step back from the natural inclination to grasp at one technological fix or another and instead focus on the broader goal. If we hope to protect our aquifer and coastal ponds for future generations, we must commit to defining and then creating an integrated Islandwide wastewater management plan.

The Cape Cod community is further along in their discussions of this subject, only because the problems there are more pronounced. The same problems exist on Martha’s Vineyard. Recently, the Cape Cod Commission, together with the Cape’s Water Alliance, sponsored a two-day conference titled Sustainable Cape Cod. Key players included local governments, nonprofits, manufacturers, citizens, the regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A variety of technologies and engineering solutions were discussed, but the main message was that there is no silver bullet that will solve all our wastewater woes.

The Vineyard community can learn from the Cape experience. And one shared concern is the cost of fixing the nitrogen pollution problem. Recently, Barnstable County published a report designed to help towns develop comprehensive wastewater management plans and identify optimal systems for their particular locations and circumstances. Available online, the report compares the costs of different solutions and reinforces the conclusion that one system will not fit every scenario.

I agree with Anna Edey that the use of biological systems presents an exciting possible direction. But it is important with this and all the other approaches to explore full cost comparisons that consider not just capital costs, but also operation and maintenance costs, and cost per pound of nitrogen removed. This is the only way to have an honest discussion of real, long-term solutions.

For the Vineyard, I see three major challenges and opportunities.

First, we have three central wastewater treatment facilities, all of which are assets requiring staffing, operation and maintenance. These systems treat high volumes of wastewater but have limitations on how and where they can dispose of the treated effluent. The opportunity exists to further treat this effluent to reduce those disposal limitations.

Second, the costs associated with central sewering are mostly tied to the infrastructure necessary for the collection and transport of wastewater. An alternative approach involves what are called satellite systems, typically serving 30 to 1,000 homes. It would be valuable to identify areas on the Island where such satellite systems are suitable and will have the benefit of reducing overall costs.

Third, individual on-site septic systems remain the only option for homes in less densely de

veloped areas of the Vineyard. These systems are expensive, and unfortunately not designed to remove nitrogen, the nutrient that is damaging our coastal ponds and embayments. Innovative and alternative technology exists to remove nitrogen from septic systems, but is evolving slowly. While there is no clear lead horse in the race to develop on-site nitrogen removal systems, there are several designs that use an ecological approach similar to Anna’s greenfilter system.

The challenge in the on-site system nitrogen removal race is to minimize energy and maintenance costs, and design a system within a small footprint. Biological systems have clear advantages when compared to mechanical and chemical systems. But all the systems require varying degrees of maintenance and the cost of this must be factored into any analysis.

Island watersheds cross political boundaries, so creating an integrated wastewater management plan will require regional cooperation. But it is worth the effort because it is clearly the most cost-effective approach to protecting our communal water quality. For it to succeed, we must bring rational voices to the table and be prepared to listen and learn from each other.

Just as Hurricane Sandy provided a wake-up call for coastal communities to consider climate change preparedness and adaptation, the alarming decline in the quality of our Island waters should prompt us all to commit to acting swiftly to find a regional solution.

A final note. The EPA and the DEP are not the bad guys. They are willing to work with communities. They recognize the problem and the costs involved. In my experience both Curt Spalding, administrator for EPA’s region one, and Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner for the DEP, have demonstrated a flexibility and willingness to embrace innovative approaches to solving the wastewater dilemma.

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