Abel’s Hill neighbors rally to reduce fertilizer use.
One steamy afternoon in July 2020, my 2 ½-year-old granddaughter and her baby brother flung themselves into the shallow waters of Chilmark Pond, squealing ecstatically. “That,” said my son, pointing to the splashing kids, “is one hundred percent happiness.”
The following week, a bright green scum appeared on the water. This blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, is toxic to small children like my grandkids, who take in great gulps of water when they swim. It has killed dogs, birds, and wildlife. In humans, the Environmental Protection Agency asserts, it can cause everything from skin rashes (from short-term exposure) to kidney and liver damage from drinking the water. The Vineyard Gazette reported in 2020 that a man who went crabbing on Chilmark Pond was sickened by neurotoxins from the algae.
I’m just one of many Chilmark residents who remembers when it was safe for my children to spend hours crabbing and swimming in Chilmark Pond. These days, the pond is off-limits to my grandchildren for weeks at a time because of safety hazards from cyanobacteria.
Toxic algae blooms have been showing up on Chilmark Pond with increasing frequency in recent summers, and scientists say a primary cause is the excess nitrogen pollution in the pond. Last year, the Great Pond Foundation found that fertilizer was the second largest contributor to nitrogen (after septic tanks), amounting to about twenty-four percent of the problem.
Earlier this year, a group of us who own houses clustered near Chilmark Pond decided to tackle the nitrogen problem by making a commitment to end the use of fertilizer on our lawns. The sixty-one families in the Abel’s Hill Association encounter blue-green algae — once it has bloomed — every time they wade through a shallow stretch of Chilmark Pond to reach their private ocean beach.
During a discussion of the pond’s deteriorating health at the association’s annual meeting in 2022, one homeowner suggested a moratorium on fertilizer use. That gave Jonathan Lipnick, chairperson of the association’s Pond Committee, the idea of developing a pledge to go “fertilizer-free.” The association announced that seventy-two percent of its homeowners had responded to a poll asking them to eliminate nitrogen-based fertilizer on their lawns; eighty-six percent of those had agreed to make this voluntary commitment.
Rallying people around a pledge was a departure from the usual business of the Abel’s Hill Association, which typically centers around road repairs and pleas to stack kayaks properly at their pond-side parking lot.
The association’s nine-member board unanimously approved the pledge drafted by the Pond Committee (of which I am a member) and sent it to association members in January along with a summary of the scientific research linking fertilizer to cyanobacteria. The association held two informational meetings that month via Zoom to discuss the pledge; guest speakers from the Vineyard Conservation Society explained the science behind the pledge.
But it was not entirely smooth sailing. At one of the meetings, a property owner remarked that an emerald green lawn would soon become evidence that a homeowner was guilty of failing to comply with the fertilizer-free pledge.
“That was the worst moment of the whole process,” says Michael Newbold, outgoing president of the Abel’s Hill Association, whose term ended July 1st. “People jumped on and said, ‘That’s exactly what we don’t want to happen.’” There was a concern about neighbor going against neighbor and hurting the Association’s sense of community.
Seeking to bring the group into agreement, Newbold proposed avoiding using the term “pledge,” and instead allowing residents to simply check an “I agree” box next to the statement “I wish to join the Abel’s Hill community in this voluntary, non-binding effort to eliminate the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer.” Some people, Newbold says, “viewed the pledge as a contract and were very resistant to that type of terminology.” Others found a pledge “antithetical to personal choice” — violating the New England spirit of “Don’t tread on me,” according to Lipnick.
But Joan Safford, 86, said she would have favored even “more forceful” language “because of my palpable experience of the decline of the pond” after decades of summering in Chilmark before the blue scum started to appear. “If we were contributing to that, it was important to take what action we could as a community not to contribute to the pond’s poorer health.”
Safford, who first came with her family to Chilmark Pond in 1947 at the age of 10, remembers catching perch, crabs and soft-shelled clams in the pond.
One summer in the early 1970s, when the crabs were especially plentiful, her children would trade them for vegetables from neighbors’ gardens. But with today’s concerns about contamination from cyanobacteria, Safford says, “I wouldn’t eat one now out of the pond or have my children wading for hours with a crab net.”
Safford remembers that, in the 1940s and ’50s, the pond’s eelgrass, an important habitat for marine life, was so thick it would foul the outboard motor on her family’s boat. Chilmark Pond is devoid of eelgrass today — one reason it has such a mucky bottom. The presence of an eelgrass ecosystem is “the gold standard” for a healthy coastal pond, says Emily Reddington, executive director of the Great Pond Foundation, who has heard similar anecdotes. She says you only see eelgrass in healthy ponds that don’t have an excess of nitrogen.
Newbold, too, remembers catching and boiling blue crabs as a child in the 1970s and 1980s without any worry. He wonders whether the water was safer back then — because there were fewer septic systems spewing out wastewater and fewer people fertilizing their lawns — or if it was “collective ignorance about what was happening under the surface.” Emily Reddington has says there’s something to that: It can take a couple decades for nitrogen from the watershed to appear in the pond water, a phenomenon scientists refer to as “legacy nitrogen.”
Still, back then, Newbold recalls, “We were a little more tolerant of natural lawns here; if we had a dry spell, our lawns turned brown; if we had a wet spell, we had weeds in our yard. It was just part of the ethic or aesthetic of Chilmark.”
Testing for cyanobacteria by the Great Pond Foundation did not begin until 2021. Consequently, Emily Reddington says they don’t have cyanobacteria data going back as far as the 1970s. But the stories she’s heard about people fishing in the 1970s, together with the presence of aquatic plants and better water clarity, mean that the pond was “alive and vital,” she says. “That’s not what it is now.”
And because of the legacy nitrogen phenomenon, it’s not clear if the development of earlier decades has yet made itself felt in the pond. “We’ll be seeing the impact of what our community has done in the past for the next couple of decades,” Reddington says.
Concerns about cyanobacteria mean that Newbold is more likely to head to other bodies of water to kayak or paddleboard these days; Lipnick says he no longer wades daily through the pond to the beach.
Nobody knows for sure what effect, if any, the Abel’s Hill initiative will have on the pond’s health. A model letter addressed to landscapers, explaining that the homeowner wants no lawn fertilizer to be used, was sent to association members in both English and Portuguese.
Pond Committee member Kathy Coe says she’d like to follow up and “ask people what their conversations with landscapers were.” And she’d like to see the results from pond water samples in order to determine if there is a drop in nitrogen this summer and next. She would like to know: Did it get better around Abel’s Hill because we decided to try this?
In the long run, the biggest concern for Chilmark Pond is septic systems, the leading contributor of nitrogen. “The big task will be making it feasible to upgrade septic systems to reduce nitrogen runoff,” Coe says. But that effort is expected to take years and will be expensive. Refraining from fertilizer use is something Abel’s Hill homeowners can do now, say supporters of the initiative.
Samantha Look, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, has been promoting Abel’s Hill’s approach as she talks to groups around the Island about how to care for a Vineyard lawn ecologically. “It is such an exciting step for a community to take it upon themselves to see a change that needs to happen,” she says, “and hopefully inspirational to others to do the same.” The recent data connecting nitrogen pollution to poor pond health is very clear, she adds. “We’re at a point where we either make the choices this data is pointing to — which means coming up with meaningful ways to limit the amount of nitrogen going into the ponds — or we suffer the loss of our ponds as the thriving ecosystems that we have enjoyed.”
Ultimately, to be effective, the no-fertilizer approach “has to be an Island-wide initiative,” Lipnick says, pointing to Nantucket’s vote last year to ban fertilizer across the island, except on farms. Lipnick would like to spread the word to beach associations and homeowners throughout Chilmark Pond’s watershed. “The idea of a pledge to me is positive,” he says, “a way of affirming our values, a way of saying we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. This Island, as beautiful as it is, will only remain beautiful if we take aggressive steps.”