Saving Farm Pond

You know Farm Pond. 
It’s the one with the wooden 
sea serpent floating in the middle, just south of the sea wall 
in Oak Bluffs. You might know that its name comes from the 
old de Bettencourt Farm that once bordered its shoreline, that it was once called Oyster Pond 
and Island Lake, and being 
larger than ten acres, it qualifies as a true great pond, one of the 
Vineyard’s smallest. You might know that not long ago, people fished from, swam in, sailed on, and ate oysters harvested from Farm Pond. What you probably don’t know is what kind of trouble the pond is in now. Nor what it’s going to take to fix it, or how long the fix will take, or how 
limited the fix might have to be.     
They harvested the last eleven marketable bushels of oysters from the bottom of Farm Pond in 1984. On March 28 of that year, a northeaster rolled the coastal beach inland sufficiently to block off a culvert between Farm Pond and a long channel that connected it, in a winding way, to the fresh sea water of Nantucket Sound. That summer fecal coliform levels in the stopped-up pond – coliform is produced mostly by wildlife and threatens people who eat contaminated 
shellfish – rose to the point where the Oak Bluffs Conservation Commission closed it to shellfishing for the first time in a generation. But, at bottom, it wasn’t the spiking of the coliform count that stopped the harvest; the harvest could have safely resumed in winter, when coliform levels dwindle away. According to a 1991 draft of an environmental impact report, it was a decline in the shellfish population itself that stopped the harvest.
Something was killing the creatures now that the 
tides had stopped flushing the pond. And the pond was 
beginning to smell funny. The water was looking a 
little green.
After the March 1984 storm, the neighbors living around Farm Pond met several times with town officials. The waterway  from the pond to a toothy old pair of stone jetties and thence to open water had narrowed irretrievably. Older citizens remembered sailing boats as long as forty feet through this channel, down to a private harbor at the far end, at the enclave known as Harthaven. In August 1985 the channel was just nine feet wide. The neighbors remembered a Farm Pond teeming with perch, a Farm Pond you sailed on and swam in, a Farm Pond with an impressive little herring fishery. If things kept going like this, the neighbors said, Farm Pond could turn into a swamp. Worse, it could turn into a sewer.
What the neighbors wanted was to bypass the atrophying channel – to connect the pond directly to the Sound and its fresh, flushing sea water by means of a new culvert that would be laid beneath Beach Road. In the same way that nobody caught in a traffic jam wants to believe that his or her car is part of the problem, nobody at those meetings wanted to believe that their houses, their septic systems, and the bounding growth of their Island was an important cause of an accelerating crisis. “There are very few new houses around the pond,” said the late Maxwell Moore, eighty years old and a lifelong summer resident of Harthaven. The problem, the neighbors believed, had to be fecal coliform, a 
bacteria left behind by geese, ducks, and gulls. The 
coliform contamination, at its worst when the water 
was at its warmest, could be gotten rid of if only 
that new culvert, preferably a large one, were run straight into the Sound. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” the old environmental adage went.         
The neighbors and the town got their new culvert. They were sure that just as flushing makes whatever’s in the toilet bowl magically disappear, the tides would now get rid of whatever was stagnating Farm Pond.
But Farm Pond wants very little to do with the tides, and there are consequences to forcing its hand.

Farm Pond, like almost everything else that makes up the substance and shape of Martha’s Vineyard, is incredibly new. It may have started out as a kettle pond, a depression created by the weight of a titanic block of ice calved from the Laurentide glacier as it began its retreat 12,000 or so years ago. It would have briefly filled with fresh water as the ice melted. But then the sea level rose, flooding the pond with salt water and clawing away at the bluffs of East Chop, not quite a mile to the north.
The tides began to carry this East Chop sand and sediment south and east, laying down the long barrier beach between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, but much farther out into the Sound than the beach lies now.
“It starts as a small sand spit, and it builds and builds and builds,” says Jim O’Connell, coastal processes specialist of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Sea Grant program of the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Eventually the current and the beach closed off the pond completely. “They’re trying to keep the pond open,” says O’Connell of the neighbors and the town, “and nature doesn’t want it open all the time – only periodically during storms. The natural process of nature flushing it would happen without anybody there, but not on as frequent a basis as human beings might want.”
The tides around the top of the Island are fierce, and the inland migration of the barrier beach would have been impressive at Farm Pond even if man had not interfered with it. Maps from the middle of the nineteenth century show almost as much pond on the eastern side of the road as there is today on the west. Between 1846 and 1897, the barrier beach just south of the sea wall retreated 455 feet, according to a report by O’Connell and two colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey. But the rate of retreat in the shoreline was increasing tremendously, from about four inches per year at that particular point in the beach in 1846 to more than ten feet per year in 1994 – most of it in pulses, during strong storms and immediately afterward.
In 1929, Islanders built a wooden bulkhead beneath the bluffs at East Chop to try to save roads, lawns, and houses threatened by the eroding cliffs. In 1936 the bulkhead was reinforced with a stone wall, or revetment. The effect, says O’Connell, was to starve – at its very source – the barrier beach of sand to the south and to quicken the landward migration of the shoreline into what is now the lost Harthaven channel.
“What my father-in-law remembers as the channel to Harthaven harbor, my wife remembers as the crab creek, which closed up only a few years ago,” says David Grunden, the Oak Bluffs shellfish constable, whose mission it is to reclaim Farm Pond for at least a limited amount of shellfishing, sooner rather than later. “I 
remember trying to teach my daughter how to float in that crab creek. And it’s gone!” Gone is an understatement. A waterway navigable to forty-foot sailing vessels two generations ago is now nothing more than four damp places in the beach, three of which you can jump over on a dry day without getting your feet wet.
What’s more, the relic jetties, built to keep open the Nantucket Sound entrance to the old Harthaven channel, have fallen apart to the degree that they no longer hold the remnant beach, but allow just enough sand to seep through to cause shoaling right in front of the new culvert beneath the road. The tide in the Sound has a two-foot range, but inside the pond it’s just four inches.     “This always has a big flood delta in here,” says 
O’Connell, pointing to sand spreading into the pond from the culvert, as shown in an aerial photograph. “So it 
appears to me right now it might be flood-dominated. If you could find a way to reverse that – and I think they’ve looked at different designs: large culverts, small 
culverts, long culverts. It’s a tricky situation.”
The pond encompasses thirty-three acres, is just three feet deep on average, and takes a bit more than five days to completely exchange its 4,465,000 cubic feet of salt water with the Sound. So why not simply remove the ragged, ruined jetties, install a bigger culvert, or better yet replace part of Beach Road with a bridge? Would this not exponentially increase the flushing of the 
coliform, the nitrogen, and whatever else might be 
choking the life out of Farm Pond?
“Even though they’re man-made, they’re part of the system,” says O’Connell of the relic jetties. “There’s probably algae out there and fish habitat, so I don’t know if it would be permissible to alter them or remove them.” If it were permissible and the shoal in front of the culvert then migrated away, a profoundly vulnerable stretch of Beach Road – shielded from the Sound only by a low stone revetment – would be exposed to deeper water, higher waves, and more imminent destruction in a storm than it faces now. Replace the road with a bridge of any significance, and the lawns on the western side of the pond become a barrier beach in a northeaster. “One action along the shoreline is not only going to create a reaction, but it’s going to cause reverberations in the whole system,” says O’Connell. “Sometimes you can predict it; oftentimes, you can’t.”

Let’s skip the coliform that the geese and ducks leave in the pond, for the moment, and move inland to speak of what we as humans leave in the ground: nitrogen, which is produced by food, and urine, and feces – to go beyond the euphemisms of solid waste, sludge, and 
effluent that politely disassociate us from what we 
actually produce. (Rain, road runoff, and fertilizer also produce nitrogen, but of all the nitrogen reaching Farm Pond today, almost ten times more comes from septic systems than any other source.) In two sentences, if you load up a pond with too much nitrogen, algae will bloom at a rapid rate, shading out the eelgrass below, and drawing down all the oxygen by night. If it goes unchecked, excess nitrogen and the algae it encourages will kill off the habitat of pretty much everything that lives in 
the pond.
That’s just for starters. We’ll get to the real catastrophe – the loss of property values – in just a minute.
Each of us uses 50 to 350 gallons of water per day, forty percent of it from the toilet, which has a jolly name: black water. If your septic system is basic but modern and working right, feces, food, and any other solid thing you put down the drain is piped out to a tank in your backyard, where it settles. Fluid, such as water and urine, washes over the top, through perforated pipes and into a distant, slimy gravel bed, also on your property. On the gravel live rotifers and other advanced microorganisms – bugs in which “you can see the mouth and the heart,” says Joseph Alosso, manager of both the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown wastewater treatment facilities: sewer plants to you and me. These bugs eat the nitrogen. They ingest about 60 percent before the remainder filters down into the watershed and migrates in the groundwater, about a foot per day, toward whatever waits at the water’s edge. As Gill the angelfish says in the 
Pixar homily known as Finding Nemo, “All drains lead to the ocean, kid.”
The Farm Pond watershed is shaped like a droplet of water, with the broad end surrounding the whole of the pond. The watershed – it is yet to be defined precisely – encompasses at least 463 acres and runs almost a mile inland. So although Maxwell Moore was correct to say that there hadn’t been much building in the Harthaven neighborhood around the pond during his lifetime, there were actually 314 houses to account for in the watershed in 1999, about half of them occupied year-round. Those used only seasonally may actually be the bigger problem. “It’s a living process,” says Alosso of septic systems. “If you’re only in the house a few months, the bacteria that lives in the gravel or the sand or the tank dies off in the winter. Once you’ve got to bring them back to life, it can take a month to do that.”
Sewering, like the handle on your toilet, may look like another miracle solution: tie into a sewer, and your household wastes somehow mechanically dissolve into nothingness – far, far away – but it works much the same way as your septic system, except the bugs are infinitely simpler, says Alosso.                         
Oak Bluffs opened its wastewater treatment plant near the town landfill on April 1, 2002. It can denitrify 320,000 gallons a day – but the sludge left behind after the bugs eat and sink must still be trucked to the Edgartown facility to be dewatered, and thence off-Island to a Yarmouth composting plant, at a cost of about $55,000 per year. The remaining wastewater, clean enough to drink, is pumped to Ocean Park, where the bandstand is. From there it leaches into Nantucket Sound.
The Oak Bluffs facility is nowhere near capacity at the moment, even on the busiest day of the summer, so why not just tie everybody in? “The wastewater commissioners – they approve, we flow,” says Alosso. “They could max this out in five years, or they could do it in ten years: Tying in new neighborhoods. Allowing homes to become businesses, T-shirt shops to become restaurants – all that increases flow.” It costs a great deal of money to lay a new sewer line, and if Oak Bluffs ties in everybody – in other words, if it has to expand or even build a new sewer plant – well, this one, just two years old, cost $17 million.
In the meantime, a draft report on nitrogen loading at Farm Pond prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in 1999 but not yet finished says that the pond can absorb 4,424 pounds of nitrogen per year 
before the “impacts to the pond ecosystem will likely be detrimental.” The standards were set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991. In 1999, the pond was absorbing an estimated 3,896 to 4,061 pounds of nitrogen per year, according to the draft report. That’s 8 to 12 percent below the pond’s estimated carrying capacity. And in 1999, there were 111 buildable lots left in the watershed.

How bad can Farm Pond get if it maxes out on nitrogen?
Dr. Brian Howes, director of the Coastal Systems Program at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, describes a slough of despond if the levels in a coastal pond rise much beyond the tipping point. The pond starts to smell because sulphide levels rise. Animals living on the bottom vanish entirely, and then 
fish kills occur. Finally, there’s a complete degradation of the aesthetics of the pond. In some embayments on Cape Cod today, the algae blooms are so thick that 
people with boats can’t get them to the piers they have built on the ponds.
“We always think here in Falmouth,” says Christopher Neill, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, “that it’s going to hit home when people’s property values start to go down because the 
water quality is bad in the summer and you can’t swim, and there are no fish. It’s not a health issue, so it’s not a public crisis. It’s a chronic degradation of aquatic 
resources.” On the Vineyard, Neill studies how cutting and burning native and exotic plants affects how much 
nitrogen reaches the groundwater. He points to more sewering, closer to Farm Pond, as one way to stave off some of the loading.
“If it’s only the people around Farm Pond who have to pay the sewerage fees, then it’s going to be a lot of money for them. Maybe they’ll decide to do it,” he says. But the watershed is big, he points out, and the farther a homeowner is from the pond, the less willing he will probably be to pay that fee. “ ‘Why should I pay $2,000 to have somebody enjoy a better view with a less stinky summer algae problem?’ Those are the questions that I think are interesting to ask. They’re not easy to solve,” he says.
Neill is fundamentally pessimistic about the direction in which these coastal ponds are headed.
“Historically they supported immersed aquatic 
vegetation – eelgrass, scallops, winter flounder, pike fish – a whole bunch of species that are associated with eelgrass,” Neill says. A friend from the Vineyard recently told Neill that he remembers as a boy swimming through a verdant kelp forest in Sengekontacket Pond, just down the beach from Farm Pond. Since 1990, the pond has been monitored and championed by the Friends of Sengekontacket, a pioneering conservation group on the Island. Still, the kelp forest is gone now.      “The amazing thing is that all of these estuaries were like that as little as twenty-five years ago. It’s been within the lifetime of people who are not that old who have seen this happening. One of my worries as somebody who’s 
interested in preserving these things is that these waters don’t look that bad. You go into Sengekontacket, you take a kayak out there – it’s nice. Once that memory is gone, how willing are people going to be to get on [the case of] the golf course and homeowners to spend an awful lot of money to get back what we had when nobody remembers what these systems were like? How rich they were in terms of eelgrass, what the scallop production was like? It’s the same for all of these ponds. They’re crashing in front of our eyes. And that’s really true up and down the New England coast.”

David Grunden, the Oak Bluffs shellfish constable, is working hard to enter Farm Pond in the 
Massachusetts Estuaries Project, a program run by the state Department of Environmental Protection and 
administered by the School of Marine Science and Technology at UMass/Dartmouth. The goal of the project is to characterize in detail the water bodies, the watershed, and the nitrogen loading of all eighty-nine coastal ponds in the commonwealth. With this data in hand, engineers can calculate ways to take back the ponds to tolerable limits of nitrogen loading.     
“Once the nitrogen load from a watershed is managed or redirected, or tidal flushing is enhanced,” says Dr. Howes of UMass/Dartmouth, technical director of the estuaries project, “the recovery of the natural system occurs relatively quickly. We’ll start to see dramatic 
improvements in a three- to five-year period.”
A coastal pond requires three years of basic data to enter the Massachusetts Estuaries Project. Farm Pond is closing in on the end of year two and might make it into the program in 2006. Asked what he’d like to achieve at Farm Pond, and when he’d like to achieve it, Grunden, who came to the job four years ago, laughs and says, “Well, ten years ago. . . .”                         

The state Division of Marine Fisheries has tested the pond for coliform bacteria and certified it clean in the winter, so Grunden has applied to the agency to see if the pond can be approved for shellfishing during the off-season. “That’s in the very early stages of the process now,” he says. The greater goal: “I would like to see that the pond is open for shellfishing throughout the year so people can take advantage of the resource that’s there.”
In the meantime, he’d also like to see neighbors in the watershed create a Farm Pond Association, which would demonstrate a commitment to the pond and help pay the price to make it right. He’d like to see strollers stop feeding the geese and ducks so that fecal coliform levels, which would close the pond to shellfishing when they exceed 14 parts per hundred million, don’t shoot up to 224 parts per hundred million, as they did at a Farm Pond testing site one fine day in the middle of August 2002.
Above all, he would like to see a sense of stewardship among all those who live in the Farm Pond watershed, all 463 estimated acres of it: Conversion of lawns and gardens in the watershed to more indigenous plant life. Less fertilizer on lawns, and on gardens that stay exotic. Regular maintenance of septic systems. Shorter showers. No grease down the drains.
“Farm Pond’s problem probably started when we 
first started building around it,” says Grunden. “And that’s been a couple of hundred years or more. And it may, 
in reality, take a great number of years to really solve 
the problem. But we really have to start in our own