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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Martha's Vineyard Nonprofits Battle Over Failed Culvert, Stream Ecology

Updated: Dec 17, 2023


The Roth Woodlands culvert is perched well above the streambed, creating an impassable barrier to aquatic species.

Martha’s Vineyard has considerable self-regard for its commitment to environmental protection but falls short compared to some 80 Massachusetts cities, towns, and organizations that have worked with the Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration (DER) to restore failed culverts, thereby improving stream connectivity and freshwater stream habitat.

The Vineyard has the distinction of spawning the first court challenge to a DER-affiliated culvert restoration project. However, in an important ruling in February, a Dukes County Superior Court judge cleared the latest obstruction to the repair of one small section of Mill Brook, a clogged freshwater artery that runs approximately 4 miles through the heart of Chilmark and West Tisbury. Yet, after nine years, the project remains stalled, and the culvert outflow in August exceeded 90 degrees, imperiling the entire Mill Brook cold water stream ecology.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, the Island’s largest private land trust, with more than 3,220 acres under protection, wants to replace two twelve-inch corrugated metal pipes installed more than fifty years ago beneath Old Farm Road, which serves a residential subdivision in Chilmark, with a box culvert that meets state stream crossing standards. Adam Moore, Sheriff’s Meadow executive director, said a 2012 presentation by the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition about the detrimental effects of obsolete dams and poorly designed culverts inspired the project.

Because the existing pipes on the downstream side are perched well above the streambed, they block fish and wildlife movement along the headwaters of Mill Brook and act as a dam, holding back water and creating an artificial impoundment. DER director Beth Lambert said the wide, shallow pond traps solar radiation, raising the temperature of the water at times to 90 degrees. Temperature impacts in the headwaters extend downstream.

“The hot water moves through the culverts and into the headwaters of Mill Brook, damaging the brook’s native ecosystem,” Ms. Lambert said.

A native brook trout captured during a DFW stream survey of Mill Brook. Photo DFW

A group of abutters led by the Island Grown Initiative (IGI), an agricultural nonprofit founded in 2006 whose mission is to build a regenerative and equitable food system on the Vineyard, challenged the project in Superior Court. The objectors argue that the improvement would lower the water table and affect their wells, one of which is listed as an inactive public water supply. They claim the environmental benefits of the culvert project are overstated.

Ironically, even as John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, presses world leaders to address climate change, back home, the leadership of the exclusive Seven Gates Farm subdivision where he and one of the objecting abutters live said they don't really see a problem that requires culvert replacement (Seven Gates Farm letter) and urge a go-slow approach.

SMF launched the Mill Brook Headwaters Restoration Project in 2014 with a $40,000 DER grant. Over the intervening years, SMF took a go-slow approach to acquire state and local permits while it attempted to assuage abutter concerns with various hydrology studies and offers. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs approved the project in April 2016. Sheriff’s Meadow filed an application in 2019 with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a waterways license, the last step in the state approval process.

In June 2021, the Chilmark conservation commission issued Sheriff’s Meadow a permit for the culvert project. IGI and land-owning members of the Dunkle and Doyle families appealed in Dukes County Superior Court. In an 11-page decision dated February 15, 2023, Judge Mark C. Gildea ruled that the Chilmark conservation commission, “after an extensive hearing process that included the parties’ submission of dueling expert reports as to the effect of the project on nearby private and public wells,” acted properly when it granted Sheriff’s Meadow a permit to replace the culvert. On one procedural point, the judge found for the abutters, requiring that the permit include a condition that no work begins until the concerns of the Department of Environmental Protection “if any” are met. The legal challenge cost SMF $31,000.

A Google map image dated February 2018.

Mill Brook originates in the sun-dappled marshlands of SMF’s 26-acre Roth Woodlands off North Road. In August heat, the temperature of the water flowing out of the pipes routinely approaches ninety degrees — death for native brook trout and other coldwater species. It is the first in a series of environmental obstacles besetting the brook.

Ms. Lambert said DER has invested approximately $229,000 for the restoration of the headwaters of Mill Brook, which included engineering, design, permitting, and construction. She said the brook provides some of the only cold-water habitat on the Island and is a stream with an ecologically rich environment that hosts native eastern brook trout and American brook lamprey.

“Brook lamprey can only survive in clear, cold water and are listed as ‘threatened’ by the Commonwealth,” Ms. Lambert said. “Only twelve populations of these fish are known to live in Massachusetts.”

Upgrading the culvert to state standards would allow the brook to flow naturally, “restoring the clear, cool water that sustains rare species like the brook lamprey.”

In a letter to the Chilmark conservation commission dated May 3, 2021, IGI executive director Rebecca Haag identified IGI as the owner of the property that directly abuts the downhill flow of water from the proposed culvert project. She said, “IGI continues to have serious concerns about the project.” Ms. Haag said there are “serious flaws in methodology and data collection by the consultants hired by SMF regarding the potential impact of this project on abutters.”

Ms. Haag said the property includes a state-certified source of drinking water, which is a valuable source of high-quality spring water that could be made available to the three up-island towns of Chilmark, West Tisbury, Aquinnah, and the Wampanoag Tribe. “Such a program will be complementary to IGI's many other programs of community benefit,” she said. “In an emergency, IGI could be a source of food and water to Island residents.”

Ms. Haag added, “There is no urgency to this project. The risks identified are too significant and may cause harm. There is no reason not to require additional analysis to ensure that the interests of all parties are protected.” To allay abutters' concerns, the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation has offered to install new wells should the project cause a well failure.

The only use of the well as a public water supply is linked to an earlier business. Siblings Frank, Peter, and Heidi Dunkl have lived on the adjoining downstream twenty-three acres since 1963. The Dunkls bottled and sold “Chilmark Spring Water” from their well for years. In December 2013, with funding from an anonymous donor, IGI bought the Dunkles property for $1.5 million under an arrangement that gives the Dunkls the lifetime right to continue to live on and control the land. At the time of the purchase, the property was already protected from development by a conservation restriction held by SMF.

Frank Dunkl argues that none of the agencies or consultants that support the project, no matter how prestigious their names, have completed any on-site analysis over a period of time. In his view, the existing culverts have served well, and there is no need to replace them. Mass Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Coastal Zone Management, Vineyard Conservation Society, the West Tisbury conservation commission, West Tisbury watershed management committee, and DER disagree.

In a letter to the conservation commission, Mr. Doyle takes an all-or-nothing approach. "In addition to my environmental concerns," he said, "I find the project has no merit as the thought process seems to be misguided. I would think that if a plan to restore a stream were to be proposed that the plan would include all the steps and proposals, and environmental filings to be completed from the headwaters to the out flow. Why would a stream restoration be initiated at the headwaters without downstream solutions?"

Ms. Lambert said that among the many culvert projects DER has undertaken across the state, Roth Woodlands is the only freshwater culvert project the agency has undertaken to face a Superior Court challenge. “Addressing the challenges of environmental damage, aging infrastructure, and climate change will require coordination and partnership across all levels of government and non-profit organizations,” she said.

A juvenile American eel found beneath the Mill Pond dam. Eels were once abundant in Island waterbodies.

According to data from the Mill Brook Watershed Study Report and Recommendations, water temperatures in some solar-heated impoundments reach eighty degrees in the summer. Cold-water species, such as the native eastern brook trout, only manage to survive lethal spikes in water temperature by seeking out cold pockets.

The report, released in June 2018, issued a series of conclusions and recommendations. These included: Replace undersized and/or perched culverts to meet new stream crossing standards; Town of West Tisbury could help facilitate this with the help of DER; Educate interested landowners on the potential benefits of dam removal to improve natural sediment transport to allow the free movement of organisms and their food sources within the stream, and to restore cold water stream characteristics.

Nine years and counting, SMF’s cautious effort to replace the two pipes has taken longer than it took to approve, fund, and build the Cape Cod Canal. Ironically, if the existing culvert collapsed under the roadway, the road owners would be required to install a new culvert that meets state standards.

In the latest twist to this story, it appears that in addition to paying to defend itself in court, SMF will now spend thousands of dollars to install a new well for the Doyles in exchange for their approval. There's no indication that their current well is failing. But SMF is willing to pay to replace a well hydrologists said it would not be affected by installing a new culvert.

In a letter to the Chilmark Conservation Commission, Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O'Neill said, "The existing earthen dam that divides the Roth Sanctuary wetland was built more than 50 years ago to access the old Edwards Estate. Access rights are shared by a limited number of other landowners, but the easement (and the roadbed) routinely experience overburdening. Your files will reflect that the road was the subject of a major unauthorized repair in July 1991. In the event of undermining in a future storm or the need for another significant repair, we understand that the updated culvert design will be required by the authorities in any case."

Islanders applauded themselves at town meetings when they banned plastic bags and water bottles, a largely symbolic statement. They speak earnestly about preparing for climate change but take no action to remove impoundments that act as heat sinks. Meanwhile, herring, white perch, American eels, brook lamprey and eastern brook trout struggle to survive in a damaged stream in a community that is quick to express concern for the environment but takes little action to repair Mill Brook.

Once the dams, culverts, and sluiceways that slow, block, and divert water flow are removed, Islanders might one day be able to appreciate the account of Dr. Jerome V.C. Smith, who, in the fall of 1832, was crossing Mill Brook in West Tisbury when a disturbance in the water caught his attention. A passionate angler, Smith was stunned by the number of brook trout he saw and recalled the experience in his book, Natural History of the Fishes of Massachusetts, published the following year.

“In no place, however, do we remember to have seen them in such abundance as in Duke’s county, upon Martha’s Vineyard,” he wrote. “It was here in the month of November last, and of course in their spawning time, while returning home from a ramble among the heaths and hills of Chilmark and Tisbury, that crossing the principal brook of the island, our attention was attracted towards the agitated state of the waters, and never do we recollect so fully to have realized the expression of its being ‘alive with fish,’ as on this occasion.”

Tim Sheran holds a native brook trout he caught on a fly rod in an undisclosed Island stream.

December 17, 2023: Updated to include a possible deal between SMF and Doyle if SMF installs a new well for the Doyles.

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