Tapped Out

The signs posted all over town proclaimed, “Water Ban in Effect.” But it was hard to take them seriously. July in Massachusetts was unusually cool and wet, and Franklin, an I-495 suburb southwest of Boston, seemed to have plenty of water: The trees and grass were green, water came out of the tap, and–for Pete’s sake–it was raining.

But water, or the lack thereof, is a serious matter in Franklin, a town of nearly 30,000. Restrictions and bans on outdoor watering have been a familiar, if annoying, feature of town life on and off for years. This summer, lawn watering-the bane of public works officials and environmentalists statewide-is restricted to one of six days during the week, based on voting precincts. “Sunday,” quips William A. Fitzgerald Jr., Franklin’s director of public works, “we rest.”

Why does Franklin need to impose such limitations during a sodden summer? Because the town already needs every drop of water it can pump from its 10 wells. “Even with the once-a-week water ban, we’re still going to need more water,” says Fitzgerald. “We’re still perilously close to what we can pump on any given day.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection expects towns to be able to meet their maximum water demand even with their largest single well out of service. Franklin, says Fitzgerald, is right up against that limit. And if, for instance, the town’s two biggest wells needed maintenance or otherwise had to come off line at the same time, the town would only be able to pump about 77 percent of the 3.4 million gallons a day that Franklin residents and businesses used this past July, a high-demand summer month. In that event, Fitzgerald says flatly, “We’re screwed.” Town officials would have to put an immediate moratorium on outdoor watering and might even ask commuters to try to take morning showers at their offices.

Franklin isn’t alone in its water worries. A long list of eastern Massachusetts communities, from Acton to Stoughton, are sweating water-supply issues. In 1999, 119 communities issued water use restrictions to local residents and businesses, 68 of which were mandatory. Joan Sozio, a water and sewer commissioner in Foxborough, attests to the pinch that towns in the I-495 corridor and southeastern Massachusetts are feeling. “We’re running out of water,” she says. “We’ve all got our straws in the same glass.”

It may seem surreal that Massachusetts has this problem. Water woes are legendary in the West, where Texas is experiencing its third drought in four years and cities like Los Angeles have been built on water begged, borrowed, or stolen from lakes and rivers hundreds of miles away.

By contrast, Massachusetts gets an average of 45 inches of rain and snow per year statewide; Boston normally receives 41.5 inches of precipitation annually–about four inches more than soggy Seattle. So, in a state that teems with rivers, ponds, and lakes and has just had its wettest spring and summer since at least 1990, it’s tough to counter the notion that there must be plenty to go around. “New England has a sort of cultural sense that it’s got a lot of water,” says Peter Shelley, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. But, he adds, “even in a place like New England, there’s only so much water.”

“Even in a place like New England, there is only so much water.”

That idea has yet to sink in. “Our institutions, our laws, our regulations, and our mindset haven’t caught up with what has been a relatively gradually changing reality,” says Martin Pillsbury, manager of regional planning services at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston. “The region has developed, and the demand for water has gradually increased, but the amount of supply hasn’t increased.”

That supply squeeze hasn’t been felt by cities and towns served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, such as Boston, Newton, and Quincy. Forty-six communities, most of them in the greater Boston area, get some or all of their water from the MWRA, which pipes it in from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs in western and central Massachusetts, respectively. Users of the MWRA system pay dearly for the privilege, however. MWRA communities’ combined water and sewer retail rates–those paid by the consumer to the towns–are among the most expensive in the state, running, on average, 18.7 percent higher than the Commonwealth average of $588.75 per year. A 1999 survey of 25 US cities also found that combined water and sewer charges for MWRA’s service area were the highest except for Seattle and Portland, Maine, and averaged about $200 higher than the national sample, according to the MWRA Advisory Board, a state-mandated watchdog group representing MWRA member communities.

But it is the towns outside the embrace of the MWRA–ones that get their water from lakes or reservoirs, from subterranean water, known as groundwater, or from neighboring towns that have such supplies–that are growing most rapidly. Franklin, for instance, is convenient to I-495 and on a commuter rail line into Boston. It has seen its population explode by 70 percent since 1985. At the same time, the state and federal governments have grown increasingly concerned about the draining of rivers and ponds by municipal wells, and are demanding that towns think more holistically about water resources. Both factors–population growth and tighter regulation–will likely only intensify in the coming years.

How the towns are going to meet these challenges is unclear. There is virtually no federal money for water-related projects at the local level, and state revolving funds that help localities finance such endeavors turn down dozens of applicants each year due to limited dollars. Even monitoring water conditions often falls to volunteers. The Charles River Watershed Association, a nonprofit environmental group, dispatches an army of 90 volunteers to monitor that 80-mile-long river’s water chemistry once a month and has even built its own lab for analyzing the data.

But it isn’t just environmental quality that’s at stake. “You are starting to see communities that can’t grow because they don’t have water supplies,” says Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation. Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the CRWA, puts it into terms any suburbanite can understand: “A half-million-dollar house that does not have water six months of the year is not going to be worth half a million dollars.”

Towns like Franklin are feeling the pressure. How they go about washing away their water worries will be complicated, controversial, and costly. According to Andrew Gottlieb, director of the division of municipal services at the DEP, local water projects could cost between $5 billion and $6 billion statewide over the next five years.

Rivers sucked dry

Massachusetts has come a long way since the 1960s and ’70s, when raw human waste in the Charles River lapped up against the Museum of Science in Boston and industrial discharge made the Nashua River run bright red. But if anyone thought this year’s opening of the 9.5-mile outfall tunnel from Boston’s Deer Island sewage treatment plant would close the book not only on the 11-year, $4 billion cleansing of Boston Harbor but also on the Bay State’s water problems, they had another think coming. Rather, the focus of environmentalists and state officials has simply widened to take in water concerns that are less obvious, such as making sure that our supplies of drinking water are sustainable.

That has meant a shift in thinking about water that replaces political boundaries with hydrologic ones: the Commonwealth’s 28 watersheds. A watershed is the land area, bounded on the periphery by a dividing ridge, that drains into a particular river. The guiding principle of water policy today–repeated like a mantra by state officials, environmentalists, and, increasingly, city and town officials–is “keep water local.” What they mean is to keep water in the watershed so that it feeds a self-sustaining system: Rain and snowmelt run into rivers and streams and soak the ground, and that moisture, in turn, evaporates into the atmosphere to return once again in the form of snow and rain.

Development, however, disrupts the natural water cycle. When we build a city or town, explains Zimmerman, we pave over the soil’s surface, disconnecting the rainwater from the ground and increasing the amount that runs off–now polluted–to streams and rivers. Then, we stick wells in the ground to suck out the water which, after it’s been used, we send away, via pipes, for treatment and discharge–someplace else.

“The way we design cities is to treat rainwater like trash,” says Zimmerman. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s not sustainable. You’re simply going to run out of water.”

Just like the Ipswich River. The Ipswich was named one of the 20 most threatened rivers in the country in 1997 by American Rivers, a national organization. The river, says Kerry Mackin, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, no longer flows continuously during the year and no longer supports river-dependent species of fish. “Obviously, we know the river’s [being] pumped dry,” she says. “The cause is primarily the groundwater pumping by municipal wells located very close to the river.” Near Wilmington’s pumps the river flows backwards toward the well fields, Mackin says. The wells even intercept groundwater that would otherwise help replenish the Ipswich in the hot summer months.

Two key laws passed in the 1980s give the state authority over water-supply issues that arise within and between watersheds. The Interbasin Transfer Act of 1983 governs all water transfers between watersheds of more than one million gallons a day. (The horse was a bit out of the barn on that one, though, since the state’s biggest interbasin transfer had already happened: MWRA’s piping of Quabbin and Wachusett water to the Boston area.) The Water Management Act of 1985 allows the state to regulate water supply withdrawals over 100,000 gallons a day. That threshold is low enough that it captures municipal wells, which typically pump anywhere from 250,000 to one million gallons a day. Permission must be granted at the state level for either an interbasin transfer or a large water withdrawal, and the state has seen more of those requests lately. In essence, towns don’t own their own water; the Commonwealth does. But it’s still largely up to the towns to figure out what to do about that water.

Down the drain

It doesn’t come easy, but cities and towns now are being asked to think of three categories of water as interrelated: drinking water, wastewater (sewage), and storm water. Each is part of the state’s metaphorical water bank account, says Pillsbury. The starting balance is represented by those 45 inches of precipitation. If withdrawals are made from groundwater or surface water, then that balance is drawn down. The balance is squandered if water is piped out of an area as wastewater or storm water and not cleaned up and used to replenish, or recharge, the local groundwater. Right now, says Mackin, “We’re basically deficit spending.”

What Massachusetts has is actually not a water supply problem, argues Gottlieb of the DEP, but rather a water management problem. “It’s not so much that we’re using too much water,” he says, “but we’re…discharging the water that we use in places that are remotely connected or not connected at all to the places from which it was withdrawn.”

The state is trying to balance that water checkbook, using regulation of drinking water and wastewater to equalize, quite literally, how much comes up out of the ground with how much wastewater is disposed of somewhere else, says Tom Hubbard, vice president of the Mas-sachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public economic development organization in Westborough, which is working on water issues with towns along I-495.

That means cities and towns are having to change horses in midstream, as it were. Until recently, state officials promoted centralized treatment plants, such as MWRA’s Deer Island, as the way to deal with wastewater: Collect wastewater from cities and towns, clean it up in a central location, and dump it someplace else. But that means towns have given their local water supplies a one-way ticket out of the watershed. “In retrospect,” says Gottlieb, such an approach to wastewater treatment “has resulted in the programmed dewatering of large portions of the Commonwealth.”

To reflect current thinking, DEP is now revising its guidelines for how local officials manage their water. There are, he says, three main ideas: keeping water local; ensuring that water supplies can meet increased growth; and, “look[ing] at wastewater, drinking water, and storm water management all as part of one system.”

As part of that effort, DEP wants municipalities that have public sewering to supplement, if not replace, central wastewater treatment plants with local wastewater treatment. Discharging the treated effluent as close as possible to the water source can help replenish aquifers, the water-laden layers of underground rock, sand, and gravel that town wells tap for their supplies.

This new emphasis on putting water back where it came from means that septic tanks are now environmentally correct. DEP caused a furor in exurban real estate markets five years ago with tough new regulations, known as Title 5, requiring inspection of septic systems at the time of home sales and holding them to strict standards. But a good septic system (not a cesspool, which is little more than a hole in the ground) can clean wastewater effectively, and it keeps water local. Town sewers that carry the water elsewhere for treatment and discharge do the opposite. As Don DiMartino, the public works director in Bellingham, says, ” ‘Sewer’ is now a four-letter word.”

Storm water is also now getting a closer look from regulators and local officials. The US Environmental Protec-tion Agency is currently phasing in new regulations, which take full effect in 2003, on how “urbanized” communities manage storm water runoff–primarily with an eye to lessening water pollution. But localities and the state also see storm water as a way to replenish local aquifers. Cleaning up storm water and using it to recharge local groundwater presents a “big opportunity” for towns like Franklin, says Fitzgerald. “If you can capture ‘x’ percent of that…that can even offset [water lost through] future sewering.”

Gottlieb says that in river basins that are more “stressed,” municipalities are going to need to put back “one, two, three times as much water” as they take out. But Fitzgerald notes that the technologies that make that possible are, if not in their infancy, certainly still in their toddlerhood in Massachusetts. And that means they’re expensive. To fully address the storm water issue and to comply with state regulations will run “hundreds of millions of dollars” for cities and towns statewide, Gottlieb admits. Cleaning up wastewater to satisfy the state and the feds would set municipalities back another $4 billion, he says.

But that doesn’t mean it will all happen. “The capacity doesn’t exist for municipal governments to spend that kind of money,” says Gottlieb. Nor, he says, is it even necessary in all cases. Inevitably, the state, cities, and towns will have to prioritize how the money should be spent, Gottlieb says, adding: “Certain projects will have greater benefit than others.”

Pooling resources

Any way you slice it, cities and towns across Massachusetts are on the hook for the cost of finding water, treating it once it’s been used, and returning it to the earth-ideally to the same watershed they got it from. “Stricter regulations, better management, better treatment–all have the effect of being more expensive,” says Pillsbury.

All of those issues play out intensely in a corridor of fast population growth and development like I-495. When sections of the highway were first built in the 1960s, the area was almost completely undeveloped. Since then, residents have inundated towns along I-495, seeking convenience to high-tech jobs and bigger houses and yards for lower prices.

But this growing suburban ring is badly located from a hydrologic viewpoint. In what Pillsbury calls an “accident of geography,” I-495 closely follows a ridge line marking the edge-the very headwaters–of the Charles and SuAsCo (short for Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord rivers) watersheds. So, in a region where the rivers are at their smallest, with little flow and no catchment area upstream, there’s been fast, concentrated growth. No wonder it’s being sucked dry.

“If you were going to plan the best place to put this growth,” Pillsbury says, “you would put it exactly someplace else.”

The best place for I-495 growth is “exactly someplace else.”

In the 1990s, for instance, Franklin was adding 300 to 400 new houses a year. Now the town has phased in growth controls, allowing only 100 new houses annually. Still, for every 100 houses, that’s about 25,000 gallons a day in additional water use, Fitzgerald says.

“These towns can’t support infinite growth because they don’t have infinite resources,” says Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation. “If they bump up into that reality sooner rather than later, that’s good, because they have to then think more critically and strategically about the type of growth they want and where and how they’re going to support it.”

That’s why public- and private-sector leaders from towns in the area have gotten together in an informal group to address, among other issues, water and sewer policy. The I-495 Technology Corridor Initiative–created in 1997 by state Sen. David Magnani (D-Framingham) and Rep. Barbara Gardner (D-Holliston), who recently left office to head literacy programs for the state–also examines the issues of transportation and permits for development. The initiative is intended to be “a coalition builder to figure out some common approaches to how to do this cheaper and faster,” says Hubbard, whose MTC shares the staff work with Pillsbury’s planning council.

Because the state and feds are striving to regulate water supply and wastewater treatment and disposal in a much more integrated way, says Hubbard, it makes for “some pretty significant shifts in how [cities and towns] plan for this kind of thing and how they will end up building [out].” Also, Hubbard says, “To do a careful job of regulating water and wastewater together in an integrated way requires a lot more technical knowledge,” than towns may have or feel they can afford to obtain.

Water and sewer have become a “major competitive issue,” as well, Hubbard says. Over the past few years, the I-495 region has seen a steady influx of corporate campuses, whether it’s 3Com Corp. or Cisco Systems or EMC Corp. All such companies need water and a way to dispose of their waste, they need to know what the local municipalities can and can’t do for them on that front, and they need to know what the state and feds will permit–all in a changing regulatory environment. Hubbard says: “There isn’t a clear track record on what’s allowable and what’s not allowable.”

In a state like Massachusetts, though, where home rule is king, “regionalization is a very tough sell,” says Pillsbury. Sometimes towns will work together, selling each other water, or, as six towns along the Assabet River are doing, banding together because they share the onus of state scrutiny on their wastewater treatment plants.

Other times, though, water issues spark water wars. Concerns about harm to drinking water supplies raised by neighbors in Sherborn contributed to Holliston’s recent decision to shelve its $45 million plan to treat and discharge wastewater locally. A separate legal battle raged for four years between Milford and neighboring Hopkinton. EMC, a backer of the I-495 Initiative, wanted to expand its plant in Hopkinton, but that would have required Hopkinton to expand its sewer capacity. Hopkinton asked Milford for access to its sewage treatment plant. Milford said no, and Hopkinton filed a $105 million civil suit, which was funded by EMC. The suit has been settled out of court, with Hopkinton agreeing to pay for improvements at Milford’s treatment plant and to pony up a premium price per gallon of sewage treated–60 percent more than Milford users pay, according to the Worcester Business Journal. (In the meantime, however, EMC found other ways to deal with its water and wastewater issues in Hopkinton, and it’s now unclear whether EMC, for one, will ever need to use the sewage treatment capacity in Milford.)

While the I-495 Initiative reportedly receives high marks from participants, it’s unknown how much it can do to improve the water situation for towns, especially when things get contentious. (As an organization, it stayed out of the Milford-Hopkinton fight.) Pillsbury argues that towns “need a safety net of help”–a safety net from the state.

“If nothing else,” Pillsbury says, “there is a good argument here that the state should step up to the plate and be a major partner with the communities. If we could get through the Legislature a fairly large program….” But then he interrupts his thought with self-conscious laughter. “That’s not likely to happen in the near term.”

The state does have revolving loan funds, which provide zero-interest loans to municipalities for drinking water and wastewater-related projects. For the calendar year 2000, 25 new and carry-over projects were funded out of the drinking water fund, for a total of $127 million. However, another 109 projects worth $438 million were not. The further rub is that in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers acted to phase out the zero-interest loans in 2002 and replace them with 2 percent loans–a slap to the often-invisible water projects that must compete for limited local capital dollars against new schools and police stations, according to the Massachusetts Clean Water Council, an advocacy group representing municipalities.

One brand of regionalization in eastern Massachusetts, though, may become more attractive to towns: hooking up to the MWRA. Mackin, of the Ipswich River Watershed As-sociation, says that the town of Reading, currently an MWRA sewer customer, is moving forward with plans to purchase water from MWRA for the first time. But she notes that expense is a major factor there, too. “They would buy more water,” Mackin says of Reading, “were it not for the cost.”

MWRA water is pricey for a variety of reasons. In 1985, the MWRA, a self-supporting agency dependent on fees raised through water and sewer rates, took over governance of the water system from the Metropolitan District Commission, which had been hamstrung by dependence on state funding. In short order, the MWRA was presiding over not only a massive court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor but also a comprehensive water conservation program now considered a national model.

Detecting and repairing leaky pipes, in addition to building the new sewage treatment plant at Deer Island, meant raising wholesale water and sewer rates for member communities. Some of those communities have, in turn, raised the retail rates paid by local residents more than others have. All told, from 1991 to 1999, the annual water and sewer charges in MWRA communities, for a hypothetical 90,000 gallons of annual household consumption, have gone from $443 to $699. Experts expect MWRA rates to continue to rise over the next few years because of the massive capital projects the system still has underway.

Significantly, what the MWRA hasn’t done is outgrow its water supply. Since the early ’90s, water demand in the MWRA system has held steady at about 250 million gallons a day. The authority’s pipe repair and conservation efforts are now saving about 70 million gallons a day–enough to allow the MWRA to abandon a controversial plan to divert a similar volume of water from the Connecticut River into the Quabbin.

In many ways, MWRA’s tale–plugging leaks, improving sewage treatment, and raising water rates–serves as a harbinger for each of the cities, towns, and water districts now outside that system.

MWRA’s tale is a harbinger for municipalities outside the system.

Drip, drip, drip

In the meantime, municipalities tend their own spigots.

Like a lot of other towns, Acton, an affluent suburb northwest of Boston, doesn’t have any water to spare. “We are really stressed to keep up,” says Jane Ceraso, environmental manager for the Acton Water District. Just like Franklin, Acton has imposed water restrictions for years, limiting watering to every other day. This summer, though, despite all the rain, residents could only water three days a week, and only before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. to prevent excessive evaporation.

“We’re much stricter with lawns than anything else,” Ceraso notes. “There aren’t many people who are wasting a lot of water on vegetable gardens.”

Ceraso knows first-hand how much lawn watering makes a difference to consumption. All the hot weather during the summer of 1999 pushed demand above 4 million gallons a day in Acton, more than 2 million gallons a day over what the state allows as the town’s average daily water withdrawal. That, she says, “was really scary.” Acton put in a total ban on lawn watering. Within four days, the water district saw demand plunge 33 percent. Lawns went brown, but Ceraso heard few complaints.

To promote conservation, the Acton water district has done everything from offering a community education course in “waterwise” landscaping to sponsoring a national children’s theater company that performs plays about water conservation in the local schools. At its own headquarters, the water district put in a waterwise garden: plants and flowers readily available at local nurseries that need no watering beyond natural rainfall, presented as alternatives to those water-hungry carpets of lawn.

An analysis by the water district also found that new developments use up to 50 percent more water than older ones. New neighborhoods usually feature bigger houses with bigger lawns and more elaborate landscaping; some are built on marginal, rocky terrain lacking the loamy soil that enhances groundwater replenishment. Developers often plant Kentucky bluegrass, a water hog, because it looks good and comes up quickly, rather than fescue, which is more drought-tolerant.

New developments use up to 50 percent more water than older ones.

That extra water doesn’t come free. Ceraso calculates that a 5,000-square-foot lawn uses up to 6,000 gallons of water a week. That’s $240 per growing season more on the water bill–just for the lawn. Acton uses block rates–more water use incurs a higher rate–to discourage use, but it’s not clear that price has much impact in these affluent suburbs. “In communities like Acton and Concord, where money is not an object for a lot of people, the rates in most cases will not really get people to conserve water,” Ceraso says.

Meanwhile, Bellingham, an I-495 town of 14,500, is planning to return some water to its own ground. Over the years, Bellingham has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into wastewater disposal, purchasing capacity at the Charles River Pollution Control District’s wastewater treatment facility in Medway and helping to fund a treatment facility in the city of Woonsocket, RI, just to the south. But even with 75 percent of households on septic systems, the town has maxed out its allotment at the Charles River plant. And some septic systems may need to get replaced by town sewers; high groundwater levels are making it difficult to comply with Title 5 regulations, says DiMartino, the public works director.

The town’s options seem to boil down to using more of its capacity at the Woonsocket plant or constructing a new facility in town. To use Woonsocket, Bellingham would need state permission for an interbasin transfer-not a sure thing in today’s regulatory climate. (The town’s land is split almost 50-50 between the Charles and Blackstone river basins.) At the same time, the town is at risk of drying out its water-supply wells, DiMartino says. In reality, he says, “There is no other option than to work heavily to recharge groundwater.”

With a new facility that uses treated wastewater to recharge local aquifers, DiMartino thinks that the town might be able to return 400,000 gallons a day to the soil. But figuring out how to do that will cost the town about $1 million, and an early estimate puts the price tag on a new wastewater plant with local discharge in the ballpark of $10 million.

“People are going to need to get used to the fact that we have to conserve [water] and do things in a different way,” DiMartino says. “And that’s going to cost money.”

Franklin is also learning how to do things in a different way. Not that Cooper Drive looks like a hotbed of innovation. It’s a suburban street lined with boxy, if roomy, two-story homes typical of a newer subdivision. But this short street, the land under it, the grassy slope falling away from the dead end, and the clearing down through the woods beyond–together, they represent the promised land of water reclamation.

That’s where Franklin plans to break ground this fall on what’s believed to be a first-in-Massachusetts pilot project to return well-cleansed storm water into the earth in order to replenish groundwater. Right now, the rain falling on this street–which picks up pesticides, dog feces, antifreeze, and other nasty stuff–runs into the storm drains cut in the curb and is shunted off to a retention pond behind the houses. From there, it may end up–like storm water throughout Franklin–heading directly into local streams or the Charles River, less than half a mile from here, and out to sea. The planned project will hold and clean the water, then put it directly back into local aquifers.

In exchange for his pioneering, public-works chief Fitzgerald, a former executive director of the Environmen-tal League of Massachusetts, has suffered the pain of being on the bleeding edge of progress.

“What sounds simple,” Fitzgerald says of the series of tanks, ditches, filters, and catch basins that will purify Cooper Drive’s runoff, “is more expensive to construct and to manage than we would’ve thought.”

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To treat a lot of water, Fitzgerald says, you need a lot of land to send it through. Land is expensive. When you have swales and special vegetation, that means a lot of earth work, and earth work is expensive. Although located on an easement the town already owns, this project will cost roughly $210,000-$175,000 from the town, $35,000 from the state.

All to solve a water problem caused by developing suburban enclaves like Cooper Drive. “If [the developer] had never built that subdivision,” says Fitzgerald, the townspeople “wouldn’t have had the extra water being pumped out of our town wells.”