Fast growth outside Boston strains towns' water supplies : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Fast growth outside Boston strains towns' water supplies

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 8/26/2001

A dozen towns ringing Boston are either at or exceeding the limits set by the state for consuming water, and that number will double over the long run, according to a study that attributes high water consumption in Eastern Massachusetts to spreading urbanization.

''This is a counterintuitive thing, given our history,'' said Martin Pillsbury, a water policy analyst at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for Greater Boston. ''We get 40 inches of rain a year on average. But the pressure on areas supporting a much higher degree of suburban and urban growth - that's where we run into the crunch.''

While relatively reliable rainfall this summer has helped most Boston-area communities avoid water restrictions and rationing, the council's research suggests a pattern of excessive consumption that all but guarantees chronic shortages in the future.

The problem is regionwide, according to the research, but it is especially acute for residents in the rapidly growing areas west of Route 128 and along Interstate 495, as well as on the North Shore and South Shore close to Boston.

The MAPC identified Ashland, Cohasset, Holbrook, Holliston, Ipswich, Medway, Randolph, Rockland, Scituate, Wayland, Wenham, and Weymouth as either at or above the daily limits set by the state for how much water they should be using.

Some towns are facing administrative orders from the state to reduce demand through conservation, while others are negotiating to have their daily allotment, measured in millions of gallons per day, increased. Normally the allotments are reset through a permit process a minimum of every 10 years.

In addition, the council analysis shows that 12 more communities - from Essex on the North Shore to Acton to the west and Duxbury on the South Shore - will either reach or exceed the state-set limits by 2025, given projected population and job growth.

Virtually all these communities rely on local underground water supplies, instead of getting it from the Quabbin Reservoir as part of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system.

The basic problem, hydrologists say, is that large areas of undeveloped land in these communities are being paved over - roadways for new subdivisions, or parking lots and large buildings in shopping malls - which sends rainwater running off to other places rather than back down to underground sources.

At the same time, treated wastewater is whisked away by underground sewers, which through leaks tend to suck in huge amounts of rainwater as well, dumping what could be usable water out at sea.

''Bottom line: This is not sustainable,'' said Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, who likened the dynamic to constantly withdrawing money from a bank account without making any deposits.

Zimmerman's group has done extensive research on ground water replenishment and coined the slogan ''Keep water local.'' The group is one of several grass-roots organizations exploring new ways of managing water and wastewater. The state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs is also encouraging communities to band together to look at water-supply issues on a regional basis.

''Communities need to plan today to have a future. Water is renewable but it is finite,'' said Mark P. Smith, director of water policy for the environmental affairs office.

A town-by-town ''buildout analysis'' done by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs supports the Metropolitan Area Planning Council's conclusions that water supplies will be tapped out if towns develop to the maximum amount allowed by current zoning.

Lakeville, for example, will need 4.6 million additional gallons each day to satisfy maximum commercial and industrial development allowed under its zoning.

If all cities and towns were similarly ''built out'' to maximum levels allowed by current zoning, the state would need an additional 241 million gallons per day, said Kurt Gaertner, director of growth planning at the environmental affairs office. That is roughly double the amount taken from the Quabbin Reservoir today.

Towns feel financially squeezed and increasingly restricted in their pursuit of new water supplies, however. The Inter-basin Transfer Act bars many towns from tapping supplies across municipal borders, cutting off that option. Towns are being asked to switch to the ''keep water local'' model while fixing aging infrastructure and completing expensive improvement projects.

''It does feel like changing horses midstream,'' said Lynn Duncan, director of planning and conservation for Wilmington.

Wilmington is a member of the MWRA and has plans for sewer expansion. The immediate need is to supply major businesses such as Analog Devices, as well as new development, Duncan said.

''The state is clearly changing its focus from a centralized system - shipping everything out to Deer Island - to a decentralized system where the focus is on recharging local watersheds. The difficulty is, there have already been expenditures and investments made,'' Duncan said.

Towns such as Wilmington are under fire for drawing water from the Ipswich River, which runs so dry in summer that it actually flows backward.

In the scramble to replenish water supplies, several towns are examining alternative measures. In Brockton, a desalination plant has been proposed, though state officials say that option is expensive and available only to coastal communities.

State officials and environmentalists are pushing more incremental measures, such as using new technologies to recharge underground lakes. At a shopping center in Bellingham, for example, giant perforated tanks under the parking lot collect storm runoff and direct it underground.

Many new developments are recycling ''gray water'' - water used in sinks, as opposed to toilets - which can be clean enough to be used for irrigation or watering lawns. Towns can also be more vigilant protecting open space for the sole purpose of giving water a place to percolate underground, said Zimmerman.

''We need to steal the ideas of recycling plastics and use that with water,'' he said. ''We get more rainfall than Seattle. There is absolutely no reason for us to be running out of water - we've just engineered the system wrong. We have to reengineer the system to mimic the environment that was here before.''

Conservation and leakproofing measures adopted by the MWRA are another model, said Smith. Others suggest a broader change in attitudes toward water is necessary.

''In some towns, individuals will drill their own wells, so they can water their lawns and not come under water bans - even though that only brings down the aquifer further,'' said Nancy Bryant, executive director of the SuAsCo Watershed Community Council, a collaboration of businesses, governments, and environmental interests for the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord rivers.

Instead of a green backyard, homeowners could turn to indigenous grasses, rock gardens, or leave woods as they are, she said.

Jay Wickersham, head of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office, said local officials should use the water crisis as an opportunity to start managing development, with water as the top consideration.

''The idea is you shouldn't have withdrawals from a watershed that outpaces the recharge or replenishment,'' he said. ''So you take that a step further and say, all land development and preservation goals ought to be oriented around that. You end up controlling sprawl by being very clear about areas that need protection.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/26/2001.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 27, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ