Surrounded on all sides by ocean, as Islanders we often forget that our fresh water—among our most precious resources—has a fragile ecosystem all its own.
If you ever need a reminder of the beauty and bounty of this place, all you need to do is look around: the unspoiled woods and meadows, the Island’s necklace of sparkling beaches and beckoning seas, the farmed soil offering up fresh produce, the salt ponds sustaining a breathtaking range of wildlife.
Now consider the part of the Vineyard that you never see, but that yields an essential resource: Under your feet is a collection of aquifers—natural, underground reservoirs—that filter, retain, and release drinking water into thousands of private wells and the 10 or so municipal wells. The largest of these aquifers sustains about 60 percent of the Island, consisting of subterranean swaths of sand and gravel.
“If somebody was to take the time to do some detailed testing and compare us with other places in the country, I think we would be right up at the top as far as water quality goes,” says Bill Wilcox, a geologist and retired water resource planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Yet, recently, that clear glass of water has become threatened by the very same people who rely on it. The Vineyard is a prime example of the fragile balance between humans—their activity and waste, on the one hand, and a natural system that has a limited capacity, on the other.
“The environment has a certain ability to forgive, but when you upset that carrying capacity and occupy too densely, you begin to degrade water quality,” says Matt Poole, a Chilmark native who serves on its health board and is Edgartown’s health agent.
WHERE IT COMES FROM; WHAT’S IN IT
The Island relies entirely on rain for its drinking water: There are no dammed reservoirs, no swollen rivers fed by snowpack. Roughly half of the 45 inches that typically fall on the Island each year percolate down into the aquifers that, in turn, are tapped by wells, both public and private. There are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000, the vast majority of them in Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, which have no municipal water systems.
From Cape Pogue to Gay Head and West Chop to Katama, the water can vary in its composition and its taste. Frank, Heidi, and Peter Dunkl, along with their sister Heidi, have bottled their own water under the Chilmark Spring Water label for 14 years. They remember working in a ravine near Lambert’s Cove that had two nearby gushing springs. One ran crystal clear, and the other virtually bled rusty red. “And they are only 60 feet apart,” said Frank. “Totally different water quality and only 60 feet apart.”
But virtually all of the Island’s groundwater shares one thing. “Acidity,” says John Clarke, whose company, Island Water Source, and its predecessor have drilled thousands of wells across the Vineyard. “It’s rampant. It’s everywhere.”
Visitors from alkaline-prone parts of the United States may find the untreated water a bit astringent, but it’s safe for humans, not to mention perfectly fine for many palates. (Conversely, their water may taste soapy to us.) Town water treatment systems neutralize the acid, however, and many private well owners use limestone filters because the acid degrades copper plumbing, causing pinhole leaks.
But differing concentrations of minerals are completely natural and can be treated before drinking. Iron, fine in smaller quantities, can give the water—and your light-colored clothes—a brownish hue in large concentrations. Too much sodium is unwanted for health reasons. (Groundwater in some low-lying coastal areas, primarily along the South Shore and portions of Chappaquiddick, are threatened by salinity.) Sulfur (with its attractive rotten-egg smell) and manganese are usually treated as well.
“But even if it tastes different, if you filter it, it’s better water than you will find in 60 to 80 percent of the United States,” says Mr. Clarke, as he drinks from a large bottle filled with water from his home well in Edgartown. “There’s some really clean water here. It won’t beat Yellowstone’s rivers, but it’s pretty nice water.”
On the whole, the Island is spared large sources of water contamination that plague many parts of the mainland. No large underground plumes of industrial waste; no profusion of junkyards with vehicles dripping oil, antifreeze, and gasoline into the soil. And all the towns’ old landfills, which can be another troublesome source of contamination, are capped—The Island’s trash is shipped elsewhere.
As of late though, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used on some Vineyard farms and golf courses, residential lawns and gardens, are beginning to worry clean water advocates. (Organic products and natural Island scenery are preferred to lush lawns and suburbia-appropriate landscaping.)
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM
One way to understand the core water quality issue on the Vineyard is like this: What we dump into the ground ultimately may enter our water system and, in some form, come out of our faucets. “It’s important for people to realize that the water they’re drinking today was perhaps previously someone else’s wastewater,” says Mr. Poole, “or maybe their own wastewater, depending on the direction of the flow.”
Island-wide, more than 2.7 million gallons of wastewater is created every day, according to a 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Commission study. While the three down-Island towns have wastewater treatment plants, some of their residents still use individual septic systems, as does the rest of the Island.
Those septic systems distribute wastewater in leach fields meant to filter out pathogens. (Even the municipal systems, which treat the waste, return the water into the ground; one such example is beneath the gently sloped grass of Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.)
Because of this, the pressure to develop or to subdivide on smaller plots of land can have a direct effect on the quality of water on the island. Homeowners are wise to abide by—or even exceed—minimum required distances between water wells and septic systems to avoid contamination. And consider that what’s dumped uphill inexorably obeys the laws of gravity and impacts what’s downhill, whether it’s a private well or one of the Island’s ponds.
Siblings Frank, Peter, and Heidi Dunkl are exemplars when it comes to clean drinking water. Refugees from suburban New York City, they sought a peaceful, rural place to land more than 50 years ago.
“And we recognized up front that the most important thing when you buy a piece of property is to ensure that you have clean water, healthy water to drink,” said Frank. So they did, before buying more than 23 acres off North Road in Chilmark.
First they had their water tested, and it was so clean that the lab accused them of doctoring it first. “They said, ‘You must have boiled the water. There’s no bacteria in here,’” says Frank.
What’s essential to the quality of their water is not just the geological formations below but how they and others around them treat the land, which abuts the Roth Woodlands and Waskosim’s Rock Reservation, and whatever percolates down into their aquifer. They’ve worked tirelessly with neighbors and conservation groups to protect their water, as well as the Mill Brook headwaters that originate on their land and ultimately flow into Tisbury Great Pond.
“That’s why we have striven to protect this property and the area all around it for the last 50 years,” says Frank. Last year, they sold their property to the Island Grown Initiative, under an agreement that allows them to remain living there—and help preserve the resource.
Because they are obsessive about their water, they paid close attention to their septic system and thoughtfully approached the wastewater system on their land. They consulted US Army guides before installing their own waste system and closely studied their land and its capabilities. “If you design it right, and install it right and if you maintain it right,” says Frank, “it keeps working and working and working and working.”
Conserving the natural resources of pristine, rural up-Island property is one thing, but down-Island tends to have densely populated neighborhoods, which in the aggregate may have septic systems that jeopardize groundwater and require hookups to town water systems.
Do the math: More people, creating more waste in more concentrated areas, can spell problems.
Even the conversion of a seasonal house into a year-round residence can affect the amount of wastewater the land can accommodate. “If you built a little camp and withdrew water very modestly, you could live that way forever,” says Mr. Poole. “If you built a big house and withdraw thousands of gallons on a weekly basis, the land sometimes can’t support that.”
And while towns may have legitimate concerns about the impact of “mega-houses,” if they are not used most of the year, they can be far easier on the groundwater system than smaller houses with year-round residents, Mr. Clarke says.
“On the local level, it’s all [about] the septic systems and whether we can either raise the treatment level in the backyards of every home or whether we can find a way to carry it to a central source and treat it there,” says Mr. Wilcox.
GROUND WATER NEEDS A BREAK, TOO
Just like Islanders, who are exhausted by the end of the summer after helping feed, house and entertain a population that exceeds 100,000 during peak months, the natural system can use a break by September. “The Island is a little tired, on many counts,” says Matt Poole.
“By early September, there will have been a lot of people here on the Island who will have consumed water and disposed of wastewater,” he says. “If that happens year-round, without the off-season break, I think we would have a very different water quality.”