"We Have To Act Now" - New Coalition Formed To Improve Island Water Quality

Jason Graziadei •

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With the eelgrass of Nantucket Harbor continuing to decline, the island’s ponds plagued by harmful algal blooms, record water usage, and the town’s infrastructure aging amid growing demand and development, a group of Nantucket non-profits have come together to form a new coalition focusing on Nantucket’s water quality.

The Nantucket Clean Water Coalition was announced on Tuesday by its founding organizations: The Nantucket Land Council, the Maria Mitchell Association, and the Nantucket Shellfish Association. They have identified Nantucket’s groundwater, wetlands, ponds and harbors as “the physical center of the island’s economic and cultural space, and the home of critical natural resources that support local industries.”

The coalition has set its sights on three specific areas in which it believes island stakeholders have the most local control to impact water quality: fertilizer management, along with wastewater and stormwater management. While recognizing the previous efforts undertaken to address Nantucket’s water quality, the founding organizations believe a renewed, collaborative approach is necessary to combat the numerous threats to Nantucket’s water quality.

“The harbor is the heart of this island, and if we don’t take care of it, what are we left with?” said Samantha Denette, director of the Nantucket Shellfish Association. “We have a sole source aquifer. We can’t drill a well in the next town over. People are aware of the fragility of our environment and the importance of water as a natural resource. Now more than ever, people are aware and are more willing to work together and create positive change. The fact that the fertilizer ban passed, it shows people are paying attention.”

The new group has already launched an effort to bring the town - including all relevant municipal departments - to the table for discussions that will lead to specific action items and potential public-private partnerships to advance water quality initiatives. That includes a renewed push for enforcement of existing regulations related to fertilizer use and septic inspection and upgrades in nutrient sensitive areas.

“We all know the town is spread so thin, so as a Coalition, how can we come to the table with the town, see what needs to get done and how our nonprofits can fill some of those holes and get that done together as opposed to everyone in their silos,” Denette said.

The town has acknowledged receipt of the Coalition’s outreach, according to yesterday’s announcement, and “will likely recommend that the Select Board be provided a presentation from the Town departments (some of what is requested in the letter is either in the Board’s Strategic plan and/or is already underway so that the Board can determine the level of effort to be put into additional forums/meetings.”

The Land Council and the Maria Mitchell Association have both been involved in water quality initiatives for years. But recent developments such as a near record low scallop harvest and ponds routinely experiencing harmful algal blooms have prompted a sense of urgency, said Joanna Roche, the executive director of the Maria Mitchell Association.

“If we want to make sure our waters are preserved, we have to act now,” Roche said. “We really want to set an example for collaboration and depoliticize the issue of water while bringing people together in support of making this happen.”

According to the Coalition’s announcement on Tuesday, it is calling upon the town and the community to take action to preserve clean water through the following measures:

  1. Fertilizer Management: Support and facilitate amendments and improvements to the Nantucket Fertilizer Best Management Practices and Regulations - including implementation of the education, licensing, and enforcement programs.
  2. Wastewater Management: Support and implement wastewater management improvements - including timely hookups of new sewer extensions, enforcing existing septic inspection and upgrades in nutrient sensitive areas, and evaluating the need for designation of additional watersheds as sensitive areas.
  3. Stormwater Management: Review, update and implement a Stormwater Management Plan - including reestablishing a timeline for infrastructure improvements in the Harbor watershed and the promulgation of Stormwater Management Regulations.

The Coalition noted that the town's Natural Resources Department had documented some areas of Nantucket Harbor that area at or approaching the target nitrogen levels established in 2006 by the Massachusetts Estuaries Project (MEP). And yet the harbor's eelgrass has continued to suffer, and the scallop harvest has plummeted.

"Approaching these targets is clearly not, in and of itself, an appropriate metric for success," the Coalition stated. "Eelgrass habitat continues to decline, and macro-algal abundance has increased, both indicative of a nitrogen enriched system."

Roche said the so-called total maximum daily load (TMDL) targets for nitrogen outlined in the MEP are just one of many factors that have an impact on the water quality in Nantucket Harbor. Moreover, she said, the conditions on the island in terms of development and population have changed significantly since 2006.

The town's Natural Resources Department actively monitors the water quality of the island's harbors and ponds. And thanks to an MIT Sea Grant, it shares the "Water Quality Analysis & Visualization (WQAV)" public interface on the town web site. 

In addition to the three founding organizations, the Nantucket Clean Water Coalition identified “fellow supporters” including the following groups: the Nantucket Shellfish Association’s Fishermen’s Council; Nantucket Islands Land Bank; Great Harbor Yacht Club Foundation; Nantucket Conservation Foundation; Linda Loring Nature Foundation; Mass Audubon; Marine Mammal Alliance; Nantucket Chamber of Commerce; Sustainable Nantucket; UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station; and ACKlimate.

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