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Healing of Our Ailing Ponds

Our coastal ponds have long been suffering from increasingly devastating algae infestations, which have caused immense damage to these essential ecosystems, and has caused great harm to our health, economy, and quality of life. It has been known for a long time that this is caused by too much nitrogen.

Massachusetts DEP (Department of Evironmental Protection!) has finally admitted that 70-80% of that nitrogen pollution comes from the Title 5 septic systems that they, the DEP, have been forcing us to put in ever since 1995, under threat of $500/day fine for non-compliance.

Now DEP is telling us that we have to install I/A technologies on all Title 5 septic systems, to remove at least 75% of this nitrogen pollution within 5 years. YESS! Finally!

However - there's a very big problem!

DEP is continuing to permit only those I/A technologies that have been approved by DEP, and we are shocked to now learn that those systems cost $40-50,000 or much more!

In addition, they require heavy machines to dig big holes, which often means loosing beloved gardens and trees.

In my case - with zero truck accessibilty to the Title 5 septic system located in my back yard - if I was forced to put in a DEP-approved I/A system (which require big trucks carrying big tanks and machines to dig big holes), it would result in the destruction of my beloved perennial flower borders, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, berry bushes, flowering shrubs and trees, the flagstone patio would be crushed, a deck would need to be moved, etc, etc - and, of course, this would add immensely to the cost of installing the system.

There are, in fact, much better options available!

There are actually I/A systems that have long proven to reduce nitrogen just as effectively as the best of the DEP-approved I/A systems.

One such system is the Solviva wood chip filter system, a.k.a the Solviva BioCarbon filter system. One of the great advantages of these systems is that they are likely to cost no more than $15,000 - maybe as high as $20,000 for more difficult situations.

In addition, they do not require heavy machines, and therefore do no harm to gardens and trees. In fact, these systems benefit the landscaping greatly by supplying nutrient-rich irrigation to the roots of plants, which reduces the need for irrigation water.

However, these systems have not been approved by DEP. You may wonder why??

Well, here's why: It's because the DEP testing protocol is onerous in the extreme!

It requires years of testing at a remote site on a military reservation on Cape Cod, costing at least $100,000.

I was actually one of the first to get a pilot permit from DEP, way back in 1996, but when I realized that it would cost at least $100,000, I stepped away.

These absurd DEP requirements are completely unnecessary from a public health, veracity or any other point of view. (Check out the scandalous story about DEP in both of my books! )

I continued developing and testing my own wood chip systems, with continuing suberb nitrogen-reduction results (see test results in two more posts about wastewater).

Ever since I moved to Tisbury in 2018, to a house with a Title 5 system (!), I have been wanting to retrofit it with this proven I/A wood chip filter system.

But the board of health would not issue permit to install it, because it had not been approved by DEP - not even on my own Title 5 septic system.

Here's something immensely important that nobody seems to be aware of:

Please read the following statement, straight from the Massachusetts State Title 5 regulations.

It implies that it is actually our own local boards of health - NOT the DEP - that has the ultimate power and duty to protect the health and wellbeing of our town.

Here are the key words: 

"... the legally designated health authority of any town ... may adopt any rules and regulations containing requirements stricter than those contained in this code."

Thus, clearly, our boards of health have the power to permit any I/A system that may be capable of reducing nitrogen by at least 75%, as long as it poses no threat to public health.

There you have it!

So, what are we going to do about it?

  • DEP has ordered us to reduce nitrogen by 75%, within 5 years, by applying the best available I/A technologies. We approve of that, of course.

  • If we do nothing, we will be forced to install a DEP-approved I/A technology costing $40-50,000, or often much more than that. We disapprove of that, of course.

  • So, let's get together to petition the board of health to do what they are actually required to do, which is, to do all they can to enforce the Federal Clean Water Act: " ensure that drinking water is safe, and to restore and maintain oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems, to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife".

  • Thus, they are obligated to issue permits to any I/A technology that may be capable of reducing nitrogen by at least 75%, and is unlikely to pose any threat to public health or our waters - all under strict supervision and testing. (See my proposal for a Martha's Vineyard Wastewater Authority)

Here's is a 5-point plan that would lead to rapid healing in our ponds.


1. Reduce at least 75% of nitrogen pollution from the roughly 10,000 Title 5 systems located within any of our watershed areas, by installing the best available I/A technology systems.  2000 systems annually for the next 5 years. Costing 60-80% less than the systems advocated by DEP.


2. A broad "emerald neckless" around most of the shoreline of every pond and estuary -  especially, tall grasses like phragmites to harvest every winter. How many pounds of nitrogen would this absorb and remove annually, per 1000 feet of pond shore line? Cost per 1000 feet? How much compost could this produce.


3.  Recirculating irrigation: numerous shallow wells close to the ponds, with PV-powered pumps pulling up groundwater to irrigate vegetation at least 100 feet from the pond, which would likely absorb at least 75% of the nitrogen before it returns to the groundwater.  Cost per installation x how many?     


4.  Myriads of gentle bubblers on the pond bottoms -  small floating direct-solar-powered air pumps, each with multiple pipes with bubblers to gently deliver oxygen to promote decomposition of the anaerobic bottom slime and thus revive ailing pond ecosystems.  Cost per pond acre?


5.  Skimming off acres of floating algae mats and making compost fertilizer.


# 1 will prevent most nitrogen from getting into the groundwater.

# 2 and 3 will consume most of the nitrogen that will still be arriving in our groundwater for

another 20 years, until finally the last of the nitrogen arrives from the furthest away Title

5 systems.

# 4 will start gentle re-oxygenation leading to rapid healing of the pond bottoms.

# 5 will remove nitrogen and will increase available light, oxygen and space and restore the

habitat for eelgrass, scallops and other pond life.


I expect there would be noticable improvements the first year, and dramatic improvements with each following year, and I would not be surprised if there would be complete restoration of the ponds within 4-5 years.

And the cost? Far less than what's being talked about officially. It would of course be fair if DEP would provide some substantial funding - some reasonable compensation for all the many millions they have caused us to loose over these past 2 decades. 

But, of course, that would probably end up being paid for with our own tax dollars.

So we need to pay for it ourselves, and you can be sure that it will cost us many millions less if we take the initiative now, instead of waiting until the State forces us to do it their way.

Let's get together to create a plan for that!

Again - see my preliminary proposal for a Martha's Vineyard Wastewater Authority.



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