Friday, November 21, 2003
As sprawl continues, SuAsCo worries about water
Water policies, usually associated with desert states, have been low priority in Massachusetts. But in recent years, as development has put substantial stress on many of the state's aquifers, support has mounted for policies to promote better management of water resources.
One of the most stressed areas is our local SuAsCo (Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers) watershed, which covers 377 square miles and encompasses all or parts of 36 towns, including Carlisle. While Mother Nature delivers an ample 44 inches average rainfall to the region, with growth in population has come a number of setbacks to the watershed. These include reduced water quality prompting a need for fishing bans, flow impairment leading to flooding and water shortages, and habitat degradation impacting the health of native animal populations.
Members of both the state and federal governments addressed the November 12 meeting of the SuAsCo Watershed Community Council, held at Carlisle's Town Hall to inform members of new research and initiatives in watershed protection and to receive input on policies and implementation. The SuAsCo Council brings together various interests from towns within the watershed to "collaboratively tackle the critical challenges facing this important watershed region" (from the website www.SuAsCo.org). Representatives from Carlisle, Chelmsford, Billerica, Westford, Maynard, Westborough, Framingham and several other towns were present.
Massachusetts water policy
Karl Honkonen, Director of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs Water Policy, and Vandana Rao, Assistant Director, presented a draft of a new Massachusetts Water Policy planned for March of 2004. The policy incorporates four principles: incentives for communities to "live within your water budget," protection and restoration of clean water, habitat protection, and "promotion of development strategies consistent with sustainable water resources." Comments on the policy reflected a wide range of water concerns from various area towns.
Coordination, incentives, education needed
A representative from Billerica spoke of the difficulty of coordinating water policy with plans for transportation and housing growth. Rao pointed to a "multi-stakeholder task group" being formed to include municipal officials, planners, developers, and academics in addition to environmentalists. The task group will develop policies for addressing the concerns of various interested parties.
Other SuAsCo participants pointed to the need for incentives for low-impact development and for better public education. Honkonen agreed that developers today "haven't a clue," and as a result, it's difficult to convince them their water usage is a problem. He foresees providing municipalities with maps and water audits that will let officials "know where water supply lands are and give them the information to manage resources," including possibly "water trading with nearby towns." A SuAsCo representative from Russell's Garden Center in Wayland was encouraged by the growing interest among his customers in more ecologically friendly lawn and garden care. Honkonen pointed to an informational "Guide to Ecological Landscaping" available on his organization's web site.
Other representatives noted the difficulties inherent when multiple towns contribute to a problem. When the Sudbury River dried up in some areas in 1999, several towns were implicated, requiring coordinated responses. In Lowell an effort to restore herring and shad requires spring flows on the Merrimack River. These flows are currently impaired by upstream dams such as one in Billerica.
Honkonen sees opportunity for better regional coordination in the state reorganization to merge the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). He envisions one organization "with watersheds as the unifying theme" versus the current patchwork in which various state lands are managed by the DEM, MDC, Fish and Wildlife, or other entities. State Senator Pam Resor, also in attendance, suggested another part of the solution may be "more SuAsCo Councils — one for each of the other 27 Massachusetts watersheds."
Make regulations consistent
One participant cautioned against "regulations that aren't consistent with the policies they're trying to promote." Several examples arose throughout the discussion, including water restrictions easily circumvented by those with private wells, wetland protections that don't address the introduction of sediment or invasive species, and over-restrictive state health laws prohibiting the recycling of wastewater, even though "in many parts of the country wastewater is used to recharge the supply."
Others hoped the state would provide money to help offset the costs of conservation. One representative said that "Westborough conserved more than any town and had to raise rates" due to the cost of treatment and lower demand.
The meeting ended on a positive footing. SuAsCo Executive Director Nancy Bryant noted, "We could go at this for several hours" and added, "Let this be an open door." Responded Honkonen, "We'll be back."
Impact of economy on environmental programs
Leslie DeSimone of the U.S. Geological Survey presented two on-going studies of the SuAsCo basin, one on water use and one on ground water and flow speed on the Assabet River. Pointing out areas of concern, DeSimone said further research is needed to answer the question, "Is that a problem?"
Senator Resor and Representative Susan Pope answered questions on state legislation and the impacts on local environmental initiatives. Resor expressed concern that self-help grants to assist communities in land purchases have been severely cut and are restricted to towns with more than 10% affordable housing. She noted that forcing communities to pass up land purchases because they are ineligible for grants will only reduce opportunities for affordable housing, contrary to the intent of the bill. Both Resor and Pope support the Community Preservation Act, with Pope noting that, "We've been assured that money will be there." She also supports improvements in 40B (which allows developers of affordable housing to circumvent zoning) currently in the house" which "have the support of the administration."
Bryant asked about cuts to state environmental services, noting that "we were already one of the worst (states) for environmental agency staffing." Resor responded that with human services, education, and many other budgets being slashed, "the pain has been there for everyone." But, she added, environmental agencies which never were adequately staffed "hurt more because they started low."
© 2003 The