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Almanac Archive for Aug. 10, 2021

The Conservation Almanac
     A New Monitoring Program for Cyanobacteria Risk
          Carrying Capacity and the Island's Natural Resources
                  IPCC Climate Report Recalls Familiar Heartburn 
Greening the Ag Fair 

The ongoing collaborative effort, led by Island Grown Initiative with support from VCS, Sail MV, and the Ag Society, to "Green the Ag Fair" has made great progress to date. Since 2018, the total trash volume at the annual event has been reduced by over 30%. The bulk of that is due to the diversion of thousands of pounds of food waste, which is then sent to be composted at IGI's Thimble Farm, becoming a valuable resource for the Island instead of heavy, carbon-emitting trash elsewhere. With the Fair's 2021 return, let's make sure to continue this positive trend. 

BYO to the Fair: What should I bring?
We all know that one of the best ways to reduce waste is to avoid disposable packaging, but that only works if you're prepared! Here are some quick Ag Fair specific BYO tips, courtesy of the VCS waste reduction crew:
Reusable bags: It's much easier to carry all that Fair swag in a bag
Water bottle: There will be water dispensers located throughout the grounds, in addition to the bottle refill station in the Hall (near the restrooms).
Utensils: Whether it's a fancy bamboo set, or just a regular fork from your kitchen, no one wants to experience the best of Fair food with plastic utensils.
Reusable straw: paper straws aren't so great, and plastic is even worse
Cloth napkin: trust us, you'll be happy you brought it!

Help wanted: volunteer & paid jobs to "slash the trash"
The progress in waste reduction over the past few years was only possible due to the work of many helping hands coming together in common purpose. There are a variety of positions available to help at the waste stations, and many shifts remain unfilled:
Adult Volunteers
Kids' jobs
(ages 10+, paid $6/hr)
Site supervisors (an adult position, paid $20/hr)

Please check out the sign-up page to learn more about the positions (and/or email Sophie with questions) and then sign up to help slash the trash!
Is It Safe to Go In the Water?
Right: The MV CYANO project provides weekly maps with up-to-date cyanobacteria monitoring results and recommendations from the Town Boards of Health.

It’s that time of year again, when beachgoers across the Island – visitors and lifelong residents alike – are asking themselves if it’s safe to go in the water. “Riptide warnings? A shark sighting? Portuguese man o’ war? Is it actually dangerous out there, or I am just being a worrywart?” Fortunately, when enjoying the Island’s coastal ponds we don’t need to think about any of that. Unfortunately, there is now increased concern about the potential dangers of toxins created by harmful algal blooms, especially cyanobacteria.  

Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria are naturally occurring phytoplankton in marine, estuarine, and freshwater ecosystems (and even occur in terrestrial ecosystems, as soil microbes). Likely the very first photosynthetic organism on Earth, these ancient bacteria continue to play an important role in the planet’s oxygen cycle today. We literally wouldn’t be here without the help of cyanobacteria.

Unfortunately, under certain conditions, these single-celled wonders can reproduce explosively (bloom), resulting in the creation of a various toxins (collectively known as cyanotoxins) that can reach levels capable of causing serious harm to humans and other animals (including pets and livestock). The conditions that lead to blooms are all-too-familiar to anyone concerned about our environment: increased nutrients in the water, in particular nitrogen and phosphorus, and warmer temperatures.  As if we needed another example of why overdevelopment (see next story) and climate change (yep, the story after that one) are the most critical challenges faced by the Island.  

So, back to that question, “Is it safe to go in the water?” Some blooms are visually obvious, and if you see a blue-green scum on the surface, stay out! The harder decision, both for individuals and for local Boards of Health who need to make public recommendations, is what to do when there isn’t a visible bloom. The most solid basis for that kind of judgment is to combine routine water quality monitoring, using rigorous data collection standards, with a decision-making process based on objective, quantitative criteria informed by public health guidelines and the best available science.

This spring, the Great Pond Foundation (GPF) announced just such a program – MV CYANO – a collaborative initiative to monitor cyanobacteria in Chilmark, Tisbury, and Edgartown Great Ponds. During bloom season (spring through fall), data are collected weekly by GPF science staff, and then matched to a pre-established set of thresholds by the Island Boards of Health (BoH) to make their public health recommendations. To make all of this more user-friendly and digestible, the risk thresholds are color coded with a “stoplight” scheme, and the resulting BoH advisories are mapped weekly by GPF and posted on their website. A hearty thanks to everyone who has contributed to this amazing resource!

Writing and research for this story contributed by Emily Reddington, Executive Director of the Great Pond Foundation. MV CYANO was developed through a collaboration of Island Boards of Health, with scientific and financial support provided by GPF and the Chilmark Pond Foundation.

Doing More with Less 
     What is the carrying capacity of a shrinking Island?

As the Vineyard Gazette reported on Friday, the MV Commission (MVC) has announced plans to collaborate with the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new “carrying capacity” study for the Island. While still in its formative stages, the idea would be to:

“ . . . holistically examine current infrastructure and potential buildout, showing how factors like wastewater, supply chain needs, energy use, erosion, housing and more will determine the eventual carrying capacity of the Vineyard.”

This is a great idea, and exactly the type of forward-looking work that our Island’s regional planning agency was created by the state legislature to do. A little more than a decade has passed since the Island Plan, the MVC’s landmark planning document, was released. Looking back, the Plan’s recommendations for better managing growth in light of climate change, shrinking open space, and the expanding chasm between housing development and housing affordability, remain sound. (Unfortunately, the regional planning agency has limited power to implement those changes; it is the six towns, and individual people, who will have to answer the call to do things differently.)

In addition, over the last decade, the predictions for growth and development have largely borne out. The Island Plan estimated that if then-current growth trends continued, 80% of the Island’s buildable, but not-yet-built, open space would be lost to development. This would result in the creation of 7,000 new houses, 9,000 guest houses, a doubling of the year-round population, and a proportional increase in the summer population.

What may be surprising to many is just how much land this represents. Approximately a third of the Island, 16,000 acres, is in play to be developed or conserved. That land, presently unbuilt but eminently buildable, is about half of the Island’s total open space. Though sometimes taken for granted, perhaps because it is in private hands rather than the stewardship of a conservation organization (and open to public recreation), this unbuilt open space is currently serving for the benefit of us all. It is the forests, farm fields, and meadows that support functional ecosystems, protect biodiversity and clean water, and allow our growing population to coexist peacefully with nature.

However, without some sort of intervention, most of this land will be built out to the maximum limits allowed by law. The predicted 80:20 ratio of development to conservation has roughly held over the past decade, while the rate has been faster than expected. But of course, as evidenced by the active construction sites across the Island, the buildout process is far from complete, and there is still time to avoid worst-case scenarios.

This is where the concepts of buildout and carrying capacity diverge. With enough economic activity to fuel the needed infrastructure expansion – if we could provide enough schools, emergency services, and wastewater treatment to meet the people’s needs, and we built wider roads, more ferry slips, and bigger jets to move them around – maybe our human community could survive that amount of growth. But can the natural world? What happens to the Island’s natural resources when nature has been reduced to half its current habitat, all while expected to support twice as many people?

Dept. of Doom, Gloom & Stick Figures

Yesterday, the latest major synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released to the press. Extrapolating from about five minutes of public radio listening and a brief news-googling, it appears that this has been greeted with great fanfare by the media (see, e.g., The Atlantic). That's a good thing. Obviously, the report is important – it presents the scientific consensus on the most important issue facing the planet, after all – but it hardly seems to qualify as news, at least not in the literal sense of the word “new.”

In case you were wondering: no, the news* is not good. With every passing year of data collection, and each new synthesis report, the previous best-case scenarios are taken off the board. Old worst-case scenarios turn into “somewhat baddish-case” scenarios. Both the amount of baked-in future warming and the irreversible impacts of climate change grow larger. And the median projection – our "best guess" prediction of the future – gets worse. The most striking takeaway message this time around may be that holding total warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius no longer represents a long-term climate policy goal. It’s now the central estimate for warming by 2030. Modeling the Earth's climate requires complex math, but estimating today's political challenge does not; we can all subtract 2,021 (and a half!) from 2,030.

So while waiting for the heartburn from a bad choice in news consumption to pass, let's change the subject, if only ever-so-slightly . . . 
(Conservation Almanac clears throat, adjusts its collar, and stares into the camera with steely determination)
  • To learn more about the predicted effects of sea level rise on our Island, check out the new “State of the Coast” report from the Trustees.
  • To learn about what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and fight for change on Island, head over to the Island Climate Action Network.
  • Best of all, to have a ton of fun learning about the history of climate change (and so much else), take another look at the Almanac’s all-time favorite educational graphic.  
* ok, fine, it's news.

Small Change to Make Big Change

A helpful heads-up for anyone who might be heading to Cronig's Market and hasn't yet seen the signs. In an effort to further encourage shoppers to BYOBag, the store has now increased its charge for paper bags to 25 cents each.

Cronig's began charging 10 cents for bags several years ago, during the time that the Island-wide plastic bag ban was being implemented across the six towns. We applauded that effort, as it reflected the true spirit of the bag ban: to BYOB, not to simply substitute disposable (if recyclable) paper for plastic (as many bag ban opponents argued would be the result). 

Research on efforts to reduce the use of disposable plastics has consistently shown that, while it is important to build public support through education about the harms of plastic pollution, what really motivates change are monetary incentives and mandates: carrots and sticks. The bag ban represents the stick; thank you to Cronig's for helping bring some carrots to the party too.

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