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Cleaning the waters of Martha’s Vineyard and making waves with Conservation Commissions

In July, we took ORI’s Clean Water and Healthier Lawns Campaign to Martha’s Vineyard. ORI’s summer intern Jessie McIsaac led the initiative because of her multi-generational ties to the island. Morgan Berman, the other ORI summer intern, assisted Jessie both in the office and on the Vineyard.

Nitrogen pollution has long been an issue for the ponds and people on the island, not only affecting the beautiful landscape but harming the local industries as well. Back in 2016, a massive algal bloom caused a state ordered shutdown of shellfishing in West Tisbury and Edgartown Great Ponds. This pollution goes beyond just the ponds — it hurts the community as well. 

Meanwhile, the lobster industry has been suffering. ORI has been working closely with Beth Casoni of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association. Lobstermen in Menemsha took her out on the ocean to demonstrate up close the scourge of algae.  Beth was shocked to see that each lobster trap needed to be dunked into a vat of boiling water to remove the 30-40 pounds of weeds that had attached to the trap. If the lobstermen didn’t do this crucial step, their lines would be heavy with weed, break, and all their gear could be lost. 

Martha’s Vineyard is just one of many Massachusetts communities ORI is working with. This summer our efforts evolved into an educational outreach program on how lawns could fight climate change by capturing more carbon and acting as sponges protecting homes from extreme weather events. (Surprise, lawns capture more carbon when they are not fertilized. Recommended practices of 3 to 5 pounds fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn in a year keeps the grass swimming in nitrogen. Stopping the spread of fertilizer not only saves money, it enables grass roots to grow deeper, become more resilient. The turf then puts on more foliage, becomes denser, and acts as a better sponge retaining excess water.)

To fight climate change we asked neighborhoods and towns to follow these four steps:

  • Say no to quick-release nitrogen fertilizers on lawns
  • If needed, apply no more than ½ pound per 1000 square ft of 100% slow-release fertilizer
  • Only apply slow-release fertilizer once a year in the spring or fall
  • Refuse the use of Round-Up, instead try eco-friendly alternatives. 

Letters were drafted and sent out to all six of the Conservation Commissions on the Vineyard. Then came the work of reaching out by telephone and establishing a relationship with an agent in the town conservation office.  Persistence paid off and we spoke with someone in each town. Some towns said they have done enough to reduce the amount of fertilizer for lawns. Other towns expressed interest but then could not fit us into their agendas; two towns were interested and followed through. 

Chilmark’s conservation agent, Chuck Hodgkinson, responded on the phone with a refreshing remark: “Absolutely, we should ban all fertilizer from lawns.” He was very interested in hearing what we had to suggest to help clean the waters of Chilmark. He spoke with Joan Malkin of the Conservation Commission.  Ms. Malkin was interested in hearing Jessie out and said so in an email. 

In West Tisbury, Conservation Chair Tara Whiting also expressed enthusiasm for Jessie tackling this issue and offered to consider her request to attend the Conservation Commission meeting.  Jessie’s grandmother owns a house in West Tisbury. Her father, Chris McIsaac, is well-known to the Conservation Commission as he is head of the Great Pond Riparian Owners Association. Mr. McIsaac has never used fertilizer on his family’s lawn.

The West Tisbury Conservation Commission invited the Ocean River Institute (Jessie and Morgan) to speak at their meeting on Tuesday July 23.  The meeting was to begin at 5 p.m. with zoning matters and variances first up on the Agenda. The Chilmark Conservation Commission planned to attend the con com meeting in West Tisbury.  They were asked to arrive at 6 p.m. rather than sit through the first hour of the meeting.

Early Monday afternoon Morgan left the office in Harvard Square for the Red Line, bus and ferry to the Vineyard.  She brought handout materials. In particular was a business card size slip of paper that on one side gave the recipe for a natural alternative to Roundup (1 gallon of white vinegar, 1 cup of salt and 1 tablespoon of dish soap in a squirt bottle). On the other side was information about slow-release fertilizer.  Morgan arrived in time to participate in Jessie’s grandmother’s birthday dinner. 

Jessie went to Shirley’s Hardware in Vineyard Haven to see what fertilizer was easily accessible for Vineyard lawns.  Outside stood a big rack displaying ten bags. The majority of these bags were quick-release.  Three bags contained some slow-release fertilizer. The best product was Jonathan Green’s Green Up with 40% slow-release fertilizer.  Scotts Step 3 and Weed & Feed each contained 11.5% slow-release (88.5% quick-release). Step 3 recommended applying 2.6 pounds per thousand square feet of lawn. (With quick-release more than 1 pound per thousand square feet may burn the lawn.)  Weed & Feed (15-5-10) is the worst for a number of reasons. It contains a weed killer that is not described. 3.2 pounds per thousand square feet is recommended because “slow-release is not quite as likely to burn your grass.” (More is better than less regardless of what the grass may actually need.) “Make a follow up application in about 30 days to make sure the nitrogen is put down.” In other words, much of the nitrogen spread will get washed into waterways or groundwater, so keep your grass swimming in it for another 30 days.  The double application (6.4 pounds per thousand square feet of lawn) is much more than Vineyard fertilizer regulations of no more than 3 pounds and it may be more biomass than is the biomass of the grass. 

The reason for a lawn care bylaw on the Vineyard is that no matter what the Conservation Commission calls for in wetland regulations, if it can not be found at the local hardware store, it will not be applied to lawns.  A bylaw requires easy access to the most eco-friendly fertilizer and stops lawn-care services from claiming they know better than the town what’s good for your lawn. This prevents the hard sell for more product than is needed for healthy lawns. 

At the West Tisbury Conservation Commission meeting Jessie and Morgan spoke about the merits of no quick-release and minimal use of slow-release. Knowing how polluted Vineyard ponds are, they urged the town to act for clean water instead of over-fertilizing lawns.  

West Tisbury and Chilmark’s conservation commissioners unanimously supported our proposal for a lawn care bylaw featuring no more than ½ pound per thousand square feet of 100% slow-release fertilizer. (A readily available example of this product is Osmocote).  To pass a bylaw we needed to work closely with the Board of Health. They urged us to build a coalition with local groups and had many suggestions of who to contact. Our work is just beginning.   

We are setting up networks of groups and bringing together many savvy Vineyard residents to work together to find the best ways to stop polluting their waters. It is not a choice of either clean water or green lawns. It must be both clean water and healthier lawns – a clean and healthy Martha’s Vineyard. To be comprehensive, respectful of ecosystems, and inclusive of all stakeholders including lawn owners, lobstermen and fishermen requires all island involvement and significant outreach/education.  

Building consensus, reaching island-wide agreement for a lawn care bylaw takes time. Endorsement by the two Conservations Commission lends legitimacy to ORI’s endeavors.  Our oars are set in the water. Seated, facing the same direction with feet firmly placed, the rowing may begin. Pull too quick, the oar will jump the bronze oarlock or wooden thule pins and you’ll splash about possibly hitting someone nearby.  Pull together and forward passage through the water is straight.  

There will likely be waves and wind. Given the way the tide rips through Menemsha Harbor between the Sound and pond, preparations, education and timing is crucial.  Windows of opportunity for when to cross over are limited. We welcome your financial assistance for this Vineyard voyage. Interns are paid hourly, educational outreach has costs.  Like a single stroke of an oar, a little adds up and moves us forward. Please invite others, both close and distant, to join with us. 

For the love of clean water and healthy ecosystems, ORI is fighting back against nitrogen pollution town by town in Massachusetts. Help these towns become more resilient to the ravages of extreme weather events. 

Join with us and support our efforts to create lawn care bylaws and responsible stewardship, today. Thank you.

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