Water Ways

by John Abrams

Water is food, too. Food for life. The average human body is 70 percent water. The cleanliness and purity of that water is key to our health and well-being. Water matters—to everyone.

Energy comes to us in pipes and wires and trucks and ships. We can’t see its source; its pollutants are invisible and diffuse. As fossil fuels become more scarce and energy production becomes localized, we will begin to see how hard it is to make energy and the lengths to which we must go to do so. Already we are seeing how deeply we are affected by our early encounters with large scale wind energy. But water is local. We are not only aware of where it comes from, but we know where it goes and the effects of the effluent—what it carries with it as it travels.

But our water resource is simpler.

Like almost everything else, with water it’s about quantity and quality. Conservation and protection. Use it wisely and keep it clean. On the Vineyard, it’s about our 21 coastal ponds and the sole source aquifer that lies beneath us. Our ponds are important resources for shell fishing, aquaculture, and habitat. Our groundwater is the essential source of our sustenance. We are fortunate to have the quality of water that we do. The glacial sand springs of Chilmark, for instance, contain such good water that the Dunkls collect it, bottle it, and sell it. And the recently released draft Island Plan says, “The Vineyard is blessed with an abundant supply of clean groundwater that greatly exceeds our present-day and projected drinking water needs.”

The draft Plan does, however, go on to say that, “Wastewater regulations are designed to protect public health, but since ponds are more sensitive to nitrogen than humans, we will have to bring nitrogen levels far lower to restore the health of ponds and other surface waters. The wastewater from our rapid growth over the past generation has degraded the quality of some of our groundwater and surface water so that of our 21 coastal ponds, eight are now impaired and five are compromised.”

The Plan makes a series of recommendations to limit growth in sensitive watersheds, to improve wastewater treatment, to protect the supply, to correct conditions in the ponds, and to direct storm water run-off so that it recharges the groundwater supply rather than compromising the health of the ponds and waterways.

These are primarily public policy issues that need our voices. Meanwhile, there is plenty we can do, as individuals and businesses, to protect our water resources.

Roughly 30 years ago, when we (South Mountain Co.) installed our first composting toilet systems at the Allen Farm and at Kevin Lynch’s house in Aquinnah (Kevin was the noted urban planner who lived a very rustic old-Vineyard life in the summers), it was impossible to imagine how widespread their use would become. In 1994 the Wampanoag Tribal Center was designed with a composting toilet system and a grey-water system that treated all kitchen and hand washing wastewater in plant beds within the building. In the year 2000, Island Cohousing in West Tisbury became one of the few new neighborhoods in the country with no flush toilets.

But who ever thought that the day would come when we would be installing composting toilets in million-dollar homes? That’s what’s happening now, as these systems have become sophisticated enough that they are part of the palette of low-impact building measures that our clients are wishing to employ. The people at Clivus New England (who supply and service composting toilet systems) say that Martha’s Vineyard has a higher concentration of these systems than any place they know. Composting toilet systems and grey-water irrigation are radical approaches. They’re not for everyone and they’re not for every situation. And we don’t have to go quite that far to make a difference.

We can design landscapes that use native plant materials and need no irrigation and minimal watering. High efficiency plumbing fixtures are available—dual flush toilets which use little more than half a gallon for liquid-only flushes, shower heads and faucets that use less than 1.5 gallons per minute, and low water use appliances. These can reduce water usage by 30 to 40 percent (and the attendant energy use to make hot water). Rainwater collection is another great idea that has not yet become commonplace here, though it has historically played an important role in water conservation in areas like the Caribbean islands. A good place to start is a rain barrel to collect water for your garden.

Humans can go for long periods of time without food—weeks, and even months. But we can’t live for more than three or four days without plenty of clean water to replace what we lose by breathing, sweating, and eliminating waste. Water is our lifeblood.