“The current system is unfair and is one of the worst environmental problems in the state,” said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association. “These steps have taken a long time.”
Since 1986, about 800 large water users – including the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, scores of municipalities, oxycoccus, farms, and golf courses – were exempt from state conservation requirements, even during extreme droughts. The MWRA alone supplies water to about 45 percent of the state’s population, including Boston and 60 other communities.
As a result, residents in some cities can water their lawns or wash their cars as often as they want, while communities which are subject to state permits, face strict limits or prohibitions during dry conditions.
Cities like Ipswich, for example, regularly issue a range of restrictions on water use, while others that hit the river, such as Peabody, Lynn and Salem, do not. An estimated 60 percent of all water used in Massachusetts is not subject to restrictions.
Those communities not required by the state to conserve water received exemptions in 1986, when the current system was formed, or received waivers later, and the state required only that they show their water use. They were not forced to comply with state restrictions, provided they did not use more water than they were allocated.
Those who demanded more had to apply for permits from the state, which came up with a range of conservation requirements that have evolved over the years, including storing water during droughts.
Many local officials and environmentalists say the system is unfair and untenable, underscored by the recent succession of major droughts. Last summer’s dry summer occurred just four years after one of the worst droughts in the region.
“The state has resisted doing anything about the unfairness of water flows for too long,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “We know it’s only going to get worse in the future, so this is the time to act.”
Critics of the proposed rules say they could raise water tariffs by charging municipalities that are already dealing with other costly water quality rules. But state environmental officials said they are key to the state’s most recent State Management Plan, which predicts the number of droughts – and their severity – will increase as the planet warms.
Emphasizing the need for changes, the State Emergency Management Task Force on 12 March took the rare step of declaring mild dry conditions in the Berkshires, at a time of year when flooding usually worries.
The proposed changes would require many more communities and others that use more than 100,000 gallons of water a day to comply with the same rules. during a drought, although the state could still exempt those who present their own drought plans. The rules could take effect as soon as this year.
When the state declares a “mild” drought, the rules would limit non-essential water supply – filling swimming pools, activating sprinklers, washing cars – to one day a week between the 17th and 9th. During a “significant” drought, residents will only be able to use water for similar purposes with a portable hose or watering can. During “critical” or “critical” drought, all such non-essential external water use would be prohibited.
The rules would be more flexible for golf courses, about 60 percent of which are currently not subject to state water restrictions. Golf courses would also prohibit watering during the day during droughts, in addition to hand-watering in some places. But they could continue to water teas and greens until state officials declared a drought emergency – the most extreme name – or the governor issued an emergency proclamation.
Baker administration officials refused to allow environmental officials to answer questions. In a statement, they said the changes will support the state’s efforts to tackle climate change.
The administration “works closely with municipalities and public water suppliers to ensure that the long-term water needs of Massachusetts residents are met, supporting demand management, the conservation of water resources and the protection of aquatic ecosystems,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the state Executive Office and Environmental Affairs.
Water suppliers say the changes are unnecessary and would likely increase costs because those who pay higher tariffs by using more water effectively subsidize those who use less.
“Water is already underfunded, and people don’t want to pay more for their water,” said Jennifer A. Pederson, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, which represents municipal and private water suppliers across the state. She called the state proposal a “single approach” that fails to account for the capacity or needs of different water systems and a “broadly painted boundary” that would not apply to private well owners.
Pederson said the rules come at a difficult time for water suppliers, who next month will have the state begin regular testing of toxic chemicals known as PFAS. The costs of these tests, and new systems that can filter out the chemicals, can cost municipalities millions of dollars.
“We also take care of water resources and supply,” she said. “But we don’t think we need a statewide policy.”
Officials at the MWRA, which could qualify for an exemption from the proposed rules because of its massive reservoirs, declined to comment.
Blatt and other environmentalists said they are happy to see the state draft of new regulations, even though they consider them “baby steps” and urged more aggressive action.
“If you’re waiting until you’re already in drought to start conserving water, you’ve already waited too long, and you’re playing catch with water supply and river health,” Blatt said.
In Ipswich, where the river is already much lower than usual for this time of year, local officials are once again concerned about their water supply and aquatic ecosystems.
Last summer, when the latter parts of the river disappeared, everything from a mole to a red-finned plucker was wiped out. Many other fish and reptiles died. In 2016, the city was less than three weeks away from running out of water before rains returned, Castonguay said.
“We should not be the only ones having to demand these commonalities,” he said.