Water restrictions spotty during drought

Patchwork quilt of brown, green lawns across state

FOR MOST PEOPLE, the dry stubble covering so many lawns these days is an eyesore, and a painful reminder of the drought hitting every region in Massachusetts. But to those familiar with the urgent need for water conservation in cities and towns, a brown lawn is a beautiful thing.

State officials on Friday tried to encourage more brown lawns by increasing the drought status of almost every region in Massachusetts. Matthew Beaton, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, raised the status of central and northeast Massachusetts to the second-highest “warning” level, placed southeast Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley on “watch,” and issued an “advisory” for western Massachusetts and the Cape and Islands.

Communities covered by a drought warning are expected to ban all outdoor water use. Those on drought watch are supposed to restrict outdoor watering to hoses or watering cans and only after 5 p.m. or before 9 a.m.; filling swimming pools or washing cars is prohibited. Those regions operating under a drought advisory are expected to limit outdoor watering with irrigation systems and sprinklers to one day a week.

But these watering restrictions are voluntary for many communities across the state. Under the state’s current Drought Management Plan, unless the state raises the drought status to the highest emergency level, it lacks the authority to impose more uniform watering restrictions across the state. While many local communities, recognizing the seriousness of the situation, have imposed or are imposing strict restrictions on outdoor water usage, some have no restrictions, and others have some restrictions but still allow residents to turn sprinklers on at various times of the day for hours.  As a result, the use of outdoor water varies widely, creating a patchwork quilt of green lawns and brown lawns from town to town.

As of last Friday, three of the 14 cities and towns withdrawing water from the Ipswich River watershed had no watering restrictions in place, according to Wayne Castonguay, who directs the Ipswich River Watershed Association. The three communities are Lynn, Beverly, and Salem.

Three more communities — Peabody, Wilmington, and North Reading — have voluntary and/or less intensive restrictions that Castonguay says have had little impact on reducing water consumption.

Boston Common sports its own patchwork of green and brown grass.

Boston Common sports its own patchwork of green and brown grass.

The Ipswich River watershed is arguably the area most damaged by the dry conditions that have plagued the state for the last four months. The  Ipswich River runs along the Northeast corner of the state from Burlington to Ipswich – when it does run. Castonguay said the river’s record low-flow rates this spring and summer slowed to a trickle recently.  Dirt bikes and ATVs whiz along the sandy river bottom and some of its main tributaries.  Fish kill counts are in the thousands. Recreational users have deserted the Ipswich for waterways with actual water in them.

But fish aren’t the only ones at risk of running dry. Ipswich recently posted a notice on its municipal website that the town will run out of water if residents continue to use water at the rate they were earlier this summer – prior to officials issuing a total outdoor watering ban.

Bans can have a dramatic impact. Topsfield reduced water use by 40 percent by banning seasonal outdoor watering. The town also increases water rates in the summer and lowers them in the winter. According to Castonguay, Topsfield’s success is largely dependent on changing the way people think about water – and grass.

“You go through Topsfield and all the lawns are brown. The people there understand lawns don’t need watering. They’re cool season grasses that will bounce back and even be healthier if they dry out in the summer,” he said. “They’ve shown what can be done on a local level. What’s really remarkable is how the citizenry accepted it. They’re a big-lawn suburban community.  If they can do it, anyone can.”

Beverly isn’t imposing any water restrictions now. The community withdraws water from the Ipswich River in winter to fill up several large reservoirs and then uses the water during the summer months. Kevin Harunian, a spokesperson for Beverly, said the town’s “carefully designed system allows us to draw from the river but doesn’t rely on it in the summer.”

Castonguay agrees that Beverly’s withdrawal of water in the winter has less impact on the river in the dry summer months, but he said it sets a bad example because it’s harder to sell water conservation to neighboring towns when Beverly residents water their lawns or wash their cars in the middle of a hot day in August.

Most of the communities withdrawing water from the Ipswich River watershed, including Beverly, are not regulated under the state’s Water Management Act, which requires towns to employ a variety of water conservation measures.

These communities will continue to be unregulated as long as their water withdrawals stay below a yearly limit that Castonguay said was set arbitrarily decades ago when the North Shore had a stronger manufacturing base and higher water usage.  In some cases, he said, the baseline withdrawal data was inflated so limits were set high for the future, allowing officials to be lax about conserving water and asking residents to do the same.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which supplies water to 61 communities in eastern Massachusetts, is also not covered by the Water Management Act and many of its member communities are not imposing restrictions on water usage. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission, for example, has no messages on its website about curbing water usage during the drought.

The MWRA draws water from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs, the two largest bodies of water in the state, giving the system high resilience to drought. The MWRA website states that the system “remains in normal operating range for this time of year…One reason our reservoirs are so full is that water use efficiency in our region has dramatically decreased total water use from over 340 million gallons per day in 1980 to around 200 million gallons per day now.”

The state has no authority to enforce watering bans on customers of unregulated water suppliers or private well operators until drought conditions reach emergency levels. But state officials cannot declare an emergency unless streamflow has been below normal for seven months and groundwater levels have been below normal for eight months. Many officials affiliated with environmental groups think those rules are unworkable.

“That’s way too late if watering restrictions are going to be anything but meaningless,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts River Alliance. “People don’t water their lawns in the middle of winter.”

Blatt recently led a coalition of 45 environmental groups (Castonguay’s included) that sent a letter to Beaton, urging the state to ramp up its response to the drought. Among other actions, they recommended revising the Drought Management Plan so that the state has more authority to act at the three intermediary levels between “normal” and “emergency” to ensure consistent water restrictions in drought-stricken areas prior to peak watering season.

In addition, they called on the state to move more quickly in updating permits granted to 150 water suppliers that are regulated under the Water Management Act. The act, updated in 2014, requires permitted water suppliers to issue more stringent water-userestrictions in scarcity situations.

But Castonguay said the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is taking too long to update the permits. Over the last year, only nine updated permits have been issued, while more than 100 communities received extensions for the process. Castonguay said the delays might be the result of internal political pressure as reducing the regulatory burdens of communities has been one of the Baker Administration’s top priorities.

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But DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg pushed back on the suggestion his agency should accelerate the permitting process. “Permits are complex and frequently challenged. The time we take to work through this process with the towns is time well spent,” he said.

“I can go along with idea that it takes time to develop a good permit, but we might not agree on what makes a good permit,” said Blatt. “Watering restrictions aren’t popular. It’s helpful for town officials to be able to say that the state is requiring these restrictions, so it’s not all on them.  That’s the state’s role, to regulate things.”