Towns get steamed over water rules

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the soggiest spring on record may have given Quabbin Reservoir a two-year supply of water, but the rushing rains did little to replenish the groundwater that towns outside the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority district rely on. Nor will flooding in May and June keep many rivers and streams from slowing to a trickle this summer as a result of those towns pumping water out of the ground below. That’s why the state’s Department of Environment Protection is requiring municipal water system operators to cut back on usage and implement conservation measures under the Water Management Act of 2004.

“The real goal is to use water wisely, so we will have a sustainable resource for future economic growth [while] protecting aquatic habitat,” says DEP Commissioner Robert Golledge Jr.

But local water officials are ready to throw the state’s rules, detailed in a “guidance” bulletin issued in January, into the drink. In April, the Massachusetts Water Works Association issued a white paper calling for a moratorium on the new restrictions, the completion of a US Geological Survey study on factors contributing to reduced streamflows in stressed river basins, and the creation of a blue-ribbon panel on water management.

DEP is requiring that residential water withdrawals be limited to 65 gallons per person per day in basins that show high and medium levels of stress and 80 gallons per person in the others, marking the first time that the department has established uniform, statewide limits. Communities in high- and medium-stressed basins also would have to keep losses due to leaks down to 10 percent of overall withdrawals, as opposed to 15 percent in other basins.

But mandatory summertime restrictions on nonessential outdoor use, such lawn watering, have caused the most consternation among local officials. Users in high-stressed basins with a summer-to-winter water use ratio of 1.2 or less and all users in medium-stressed basins would be limited to watering up to two days per week, and only before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. Localities in high-stressed basins with a summer-winter ratio greater than 1.2 could only water one day a week.

These provisions have communities up in arms, including towns that see themselves as good stewards of this precious resource. For example, Concord, which is located in the medium-stressed SuAsCo (Sudbury-Assabet-Concord) watershed, prides itself on a conservation ethos. It has a water rate structure that makes large residential users, whose bills average $1,200 per year, pay more for higher summer usage; a leak detection program; and education programs to promote household water conservation. After launching a comprehensive conservation program in 1997, the town reduced water use nearly 20 percent from fiscal 1998 through fiscal 2005, even as it added customers. Unaccounted-for water losses are between 7 percent and 8 percent. Concord’s residential water usage currently stands at 74 gallons per person per day.

Concord may get its first water ban.

But the new rules would require Concord to impose a water ban for the first time ever, according to William Edgerton, director of the town’s public works department. Mandatory reductions in usage per capita would also cost the town both money and good will, he says. To avert an $800,000 shortfall in revenue, which Edgerton says would compromise system maintenance, the town would have to impose a 23 percent rate increase on homeowners.

Alan Cathcart, the town’s water and sewer superintendent, concedes that a water ban would probably upset people in this wealthy town more than a rate increase would. But he objects to DEP’s failure to differentiate between towns like Concord and localities that have made few strides in conservation.

“What bothers us is that we are a progressive and environmentally aware community,” says Cathcart. “We are conserving.”

Even more galling to local officials was the lack of opportunity to offer input on the DEP policy, which was based on a 2001 stressed-basin study designed, they claim, for statistical, not policy, purposes. Short-circuiting the public process sets a “terrible precedent for a state agency,” says Massachusetts Municipal Association executive director Geoff Beckwith. “To spring into what they are calling a ‘guidance process,’ where the end requirements have the same power as regulation, really is something very disturbing.”

Golledge admits that DEP didn’t exactly hear everyone out before the agency adopted its water policy two years ago. But in the time since, he says, DEP has engaged municipalities and addressed their concerns, giving local officials time to achieve the goals and delaying enforcement action against communities that are making progress.

“Is it tough to get there? Absolutely,” he says.

Nevertheless, water managers see themselves, and their residential customers, as singled out for grief, when they’re not the only ones affecting water supply. “I think we are an easy target,” says Massachusetts Water Works Association president James Marshall, who manages Plainville’s water and sewer system.

Local water officials say development creates large swaths of impervious surfaces (parking lots, roadways, and the like) that keep rain from seeping into the ground. Storm runoff is diverted into rivers and streams and carried off to the ocean, while wastewater is treated in centralized facilities and discharged far from the original source. As a result, groundwater does not get replenished. “It’s kind of a triple whammy,” says Martin Pillsbury, regional planning manager for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The water managers’ call for a moratorium on new restrictions is likely to fall on deaf ears, but the state Senate amended its version of the state budget to create a blue-ribbon panel to sort matters out. “I think there are nuances in our water situation in parts of Massachusetts that ought to be reflected in the policy,” says Sen. Edward Augustus Jr., a Worcester Democrat who sponsored the amendment, which was pending at press time.

Pillsbury agrees that local water managers are left holding the bag for land-use decisions made by other bodies. But he doubts that any new water-management panel would have the authority to address the zoning issues that could actually reduce the impact of development on water resources.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, environmental groups asserted that 67 percent of municipalities already meet the 65 gallons per person per day limit and 78 percent of towns in medium- and high-stressed basins are in compliance with the policy. As to the others, they say, it’s high time that the state cracked down on their excessive water use.

“The Commonwealth has not had these kinds of strict standards in place, and that’s why we are in trouble,” says Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.