River stressed out
By Jon Brodkin / News Staff Writer
The state is limiting the amount of water communities can draw from "stressed" river basins in a new policy that could restore rivers to health but force more water bans.
As lawn watering hits its peak, the policy that went into effect in April is pleasing environmentalists and angering some water providers, who complain it could be nearly impossible to comply with the regulations.
"Unless they change them, I don't see us being able to meet those standards even if we completely ban water year-round," said Bill Fitzgerald, director of Franklin public works.
Franklin is one of 15 communities that draws water from the Charles River basin, which the state considers stressed.
Even after record rainfall in April and continued rain since then, the level of water in the Charles River is beginning to drop, said Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.
"We haven't struck the appropriate balance and the river is dropping due to human demand," Zimmerman said. The new policy is "the first real stake in the ground that says (the Department of Environmental Protection) is beginning to fundamentally change the way it manages Massachusetts water resources so that we don't run out of water."
One of the changes will force many communities to reduce water consumption from an average of 80 gallons per resident per day to 65 gallons. Those that fail to comply could be forced to improve water conservation or even be hit with fines.
The policy also sets a limit on "unaccounted" water, essentially water that is pumped but then lost before reaching faucets due to flaws in the system.
DEP is applying its new policy to all permitting decisions. All communities that draw water from the Charles basin are scheduled for a permit review this year, the DEP said, and thus will soon have to comply with the new rules.
A river basin, the geographical area draining into a river and its tributaries, is called stressed when the flow of the river or tributaries has been reduced significantly or if habitats for plants and animals are damaged.
Pulling groundwater from the basin for use as drinking water, fire protection or watering lawns prevents that water from traveling to the river and its tributaries, said Margaret Van Deusen, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association.
The communities that draw water from the basin are Milford, Bellingham, Dover, Franklin, Holliston, Medfield, Medway, Millis, Natick, Needham, Norfolk, Sherborn, Wellesley, Walpole and Wrentham, according to the Charles River association.
Natick does not expect the new rules to affect them much because the town draws most of its water from the basin surrounding the Sudbury, Assabet and Concord rivers, said Charlie Sisitsky, director of public works.
Medway has already received its new permit. Because it requires water bans whenever the Charles River level falls under a certain limit, the town will begin enforcing mandatory bans on nonessential outdoor water use in August and September each year when the level is typically low, said Mark Flaherty, Medway's water and sewer superintendent.
"We've always had water bans. Most of the time it's been voluntary," he said. "This water ban is permanent."
The new DEP policy was enacted after a legal battle that led to stricter restrictions of withdrawals from the Ipswich River basin.
But the new rules seem to apply unevenly because of the way the Water Management Act was implemented in 1994.
When the act became law, officials said, grandfather clauses gave water providers the right to continue using the same amount of water they had used in previous years. Providers who have stayed under their grandfathered annual use were never required to apply for state permits.
Since the new policy can only be enforced by attaching its provisions to permits, some towns will apparently be allowed to continue using more than 65 gallons per resident as long as they stay at or under their pre-1994 use.
Wellesley uses about 80 gallons per day per person, said Joe Duggan, the town's water superintendent. Because the town never exceeded its grandfathered limit, Duggan said the new regulations will not apply to Wellesley unless it needs a permit.
It is a good deal for residents of Wellesley, who have never been subjected to a mandatory water ban, and Duggan said it would not be easy for the town to suddenly stop using so much water.
Some communities that are subject to the new policy are angry because DEP did not invite their comments before releasing the new rules.
But the state says it did not want to get bogged down discussing details of the policy when a delay could harm stressed river basins.
"In some basins the situation was deteriorating quickly," said Cynthia Giles, a DEP assistant commissioner.
The Massachusetts Water Works Association, which objected to not being contacted before the policy was issued, has requested a meeting with DEP Commissioner Robert Golledge Jr. to discuss the policy, said Phil Guerin, past president of the association and water resource coordinator for Worcester public works.
Holliston is enforcing a mandatory odd/even watering ban, and Guerin predicted water bans will be the norm for communities that draw water from stressed basins.
"A lot of systems are going to have a lot of difficulty meeting (the new rules)," Guerin said.
( Jon Brodkin can be reached at
508-626-4424 or email@example.com. )
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