Friday, December 15, 2000
Carlisle and Chelmsford revisit bog water controversy
Explore legal rights, water use needs and practices
Four members of the Carlisle Conservation Commission (ConsCom) traveled to Chelmsford December 5 in response to an invitation from the Chelmsford commission to explore their shared and potentially conflicting rights to water in the Cranberry Bog Reservation.
The meeting was a follow-up to last spring's near crisis over the Chelmsford Water District's proposal to pump 360,000 gallons of water per day from the wetland system that irrigates Carlisle's Cranberry Bog. That plan, which would have required approval from the Chelmsford commission, occasioned five public hearings that were closely followed by ConsCom and the board of selectmen. The idea was dropped by Chelmsford only after Carlisle's special counsel on water rights, Frank DiLuna, clarified what he believed to be the bog's primary rights to water from the Heart Pond/River Meadow Brook aquifer. However, in their statement at that time, Chelmsford representatives left the door open for a possible reintroduction of the proposal in the future.
A brief look at the history shows that the 300-acre Cranberry Bog Reservation was bought in 1986 by the towns of Chelmsford and Carlisle when the Lowell Cranberry Company went out of business. Carlisle purchased the southern section that encompasses the bog itself and part of the holding ponds. Chelmsford took the northern portion that includes large acreage in these proximal bog reservoirs and River Meadow Brook with its associated wetlands, all of which originate from Heart Pond.
Towns pledge to cooperate
Before the Tuesday joint session, the Chelmsford commission submitted a list of questions for discussion that centered on the bog's water management practices and its impact on wetland resources in both towns. Chelmsford Chair David MacLachlan opened the meeting by stressing the importance of the "very large and varied resource of which we are both custodians." Carlisle chair Carolyn Kiely responded by assuring him of this town's desire to work with its neighbors. MacLachlan pointed out that their community faces water issues that can't be solved quickly, but that during their hearings on the proposed Barnes Terrace wells, it became clear that Chelmsford officialdom was unaware of the extent of the Carlisle bog's needs. "This was the first time this commission has run into a possible conflict between our obligation under the Wetland Protection Act and our obligations to the citizens of Chelmsford to get water," he explained.
Bog water management
Robert Greenwood, a veteran of 35 years on the Chelmsford board, said that he had found out recently that Chelmsford too had water rights at Heart Pond, although their exact nature was yet to be determined. Kiely assured him that the Carlisle commission understands the concerns of Heart Pond users, and that Carlisle Cranberries president Mark Duffy draws water from that body only as a last resort. Kiely added that the Carlisle commission is "proud" of what Duffy has done to avoid any overuse of water and called on him to elaborate. Duffy explained that he has drastically reduced water use since he took over the bog, particularly in the matter of frost protection, and that he works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on water storage and drought management. Asked if he had exhausted all conservation possibilities, the farmer said, "No, not really," because efficiency should increase as his ongoing rehabilitation of the bog continues.
Duffy's reference to bog improvements brought a politely worded query from MacLachlan about the financial viability of Duffy's operation, given this year's precipitous drop in the price of cranberries. Duffy fielded the question by noting, "I've been in agriculture all my life, so I'm used to this sort of instability, perhaps more so than some recent investors in the business."
Bog's legal rights to water
Duffy went on to explain that his water rights do not come solely from the Lowell Cranberries deed. His registered right to 357,000 gallons of water per day comes from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, primarily because the bog is an agricultural operation. MacLachlan asked , "What is the maximum draw that can be taken [from the Heart Pond system] by Mark and by us?" Carlisle commissioner John Lee, who manages Allandale Farm in Boston, explained that agriculture has a special status in Massachusetts that exceeds what is granted to other agencies. Referring to Duffy's claim to have saved large quantities of water, Chelmsford commissioner Mark Grant observed, "To know what you've conserved, you would need to be able to measure and quantify." Lee agreed but pointed out that this would be almost impossible to do, given the vagaries of nature and the inevitable leakage from old dams starting at Heart Pond itself and extending to the bog. He felt that a hydrologist might be able to estimate the volume based on the total capacity of the entire aquifer.
Responding to a question from MacLachlan as to whether Carlisle would consider the bog as a last-resort source of water for the town, Kiely said, "This possibility is not even on our radar screen," a sentiment seconded by Lee, who recalled that the town had bought it with the express purpose of running a cranberry bog, and that this concept has overwhelming public support.
Wells are not the answer
Concerned about the destructive potential of large water withdrawals on wetland areas both above and below the bog, Chelmsford commissioner Mike Jasinski asked why Duffy couldn't look into the use of wells to supply at least part of the water, rather than drawing it all down from the surface waters above the bog, during periods of drought. Both Lee and Duffy replied that not only would this be prohibitively expensive, but that the wells would inevitably take water from the same recharge area that includes the bog itself.
MacLachlan brought a close to the bog portion of the Chelmsford agenda by declaring that his board has a lot of research activity ahead of it, particularly on the legal ramifications of water rights and asked the Carlisle delegation to supply a copy of their bog deed. They immediately concurred, and the two boards agreed to get together some time in the future for further discussions.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito