Near the head of the Parker River in Georgetown, Massachusetts, dead branches and white turtle shells rest atop trampled soil. A once roaring floodplain sits desiccated, engulfed in silence. Only footprints and the wheel tracks of an ATV remain. This stem of the Parker has been dry for five months.
“What would be the reaction of Boston if people woke up and saw the Charles River like this?” said George Comiskey, the president of the Clean Water Association for the Parker River (PRCWA).
The Parker River is a 21-mile long coastal tributary north of Boston that’s been suffering from periodic dry conditions since 1990—and the situation is only getting worse. A study in 2013 shows that current flow conditions are lower than ever before and Comiskey is desperate for real change to occur. “[Georgetown] is totally dependent on the Parker for our water supply,” he said.
But the Parker isn’t the only struggling river in Massachusetts. Over 20 percent of the state’s sub-basins—main sources of water for rivers—are severely impacted by excessive water withdrawal. The Ipswich and Merrimack rivers are also suffering from erratic flow conditions, making them unreliable sources of fresh water for Massachusetts’ residents. This degradation of rivers in Massachusetts has all happened within the law, without any mandated water restrictions, and without significant public outcry for change. The most recent regulations trying to address these issues were drafted in 2009, and they still aren’t being implemented across the entire state—largely due to compromise and debate slowing down the process. It is because of ineffective water regulations that today’s Massachusetts faces serious biodiversity loss, erosion, and drought conditions.
In 1986, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) introduced the Water Management Act (WMA), the state’s first attempt to limit how much water towns in Massachusetts could withdraw from rivers over a twenty-year period. This limit was determined by assigning different “safe yield” numbers to each river basin, which specify the amount of water that can be withdrawn from a basin without making significant ecological impacts. However, using safe yields hasn’t saved the state’s many rivers from drying up because the numbers are too high and aren’t followed strictly. For the WMA to be passed in 1986, the DEP had to strike compromises with companies that provide water to residents’ homes. That meant the DEP settled on high withdrawal rates in many towns in the interest of water suppliers.
Duane Levangie, who is with the DEP, acknowledges there are problems with the WMA, but said an important part of its creation was making sure the water withdrawal rates worked for everyone involved. “If we could start from scratch that would be wonderful, but we can’t. We have a state that’s allocated water for a couple hundred years so there are going to be trades—there are going to be areas where water and the environment have issues. I don’t know any way to resolve that.”
In some cases the DEP hasn’t taken action or even noticed when towns have exceeded their withdrawal limits. Last year, a section of the Parker River by the town of Rowley had dangerously low streamflow, dropping below the required minimum set by the DEP. This alarming event should have set the town on mandatory water restrictions. When water suppliers in the town didn’t respond, Comiskey of the Clean Water Association reached out. “I’ve had to call water suppliers in Rowley when the streamflow triggered… and told them they should be on water restrictions now according to their permits given by the DEP. They weren’t aware that the triggers of the river were even dropping.”
In 2012, the Executive Office of Environment and Energy Affairs (EOEEA), which oversees the DEP, introduced new regulation aimed at fixing problems with the current system. The goal of the Sustainable Water Management Initiative or SWMI, was to continue to compromise with the relevant stakeholders (water suppliers, citizens, fishermen, etc.) and come up with better safe yield numbers.
“However, SWMI will do nothing to reverse [the] unacceptable environmental degradation that was the reason for the SWMI process in the first place. On the contrary, [it] provides a 5 percent increase in existing withdrawals even in the most stressed basins,” according to Paul Lauenstein, the former Georgetown Conservation Coordinator.
Comiskey also doubts SWMI will repair the state’s rivers and believes it favors water suppliers over conservation. “I think it’s going to be a paper exercise for the water suppliers. They’re going to go to their different departments and say, ‘what have we done so we can get more water,” he said.
If the status quo persists or gets worse, low flow conditions will become even more prevalent and continue a trend of biodiversity loss, erosion, and overall ecological degradation. These effects were evident as Comiskey stepped over old reeds in the Parker’s dry floodplain. He pointed to a small grouping of low-lying plants, explaining that it was once a turtle nest, perhaps for a spotted, painted, or wood turtle. Now, these local turtle species are dying out due to low flow. Lack of water isn’t just a threat to animal and plant life, it also threatens households reliant on wells. Without water, household plumbing will pull sand through the pipes, an expensive problem to fix.
Byfield, a town along the Parker, is particularly affected by low stream flow. The town is bumping up against their yearly withdrawal limit and is in dire need of more water. To address the problem, the DEP wrote that Byfield should simply apply for more water. Comiskey laughed at the prospect. “It’s simplistic on their part to say, ‘Just find another water source’… how about telling them to conserve more water, to fix the leaks!” Instead, Byfield is now digging another well rather than taking steps towards a long-term solution.
Nevertheless, the EOEEA’s Director of Water Policy, Kathleen Baskin, says towns are still getting accustomed to the new SWMI regulations, as kinks in the policy are still getting worked out. “The weakness is that it’s a new program… it’s still being introduced into permits now, so towns are not that familiar with the framework. They are getting up to speed, they’re sure yet what they’ll need to mitigate their impacts.”
According to the Lauenstein, the framework needs to prioritize conservation more than it does now. One method he recommends is a water rate structure, where the cost of a family’s water bill matches the true cost of supplying high-quality water. If a household has to pay more, they’ll likely waste less.
Advocates say a serious issue is that citizens aren’t aware of our rivers problems or what they mean for the environment long-term. PCRWA Director Yvonne Buswell explains, “People don’t see what’s happening. If it’s not happening in your face, you just go about your business until if affects you at a personal level.”
This coming year could be a turning point for Massachusetts as towns renew their 20-year Water Management Act permits that incorporate the new SWMI framework. Advocates warn that serious changes still need to be made to water policy because struggling rivers can’t fix themselves.
At the Parker, Comiskey points out a Go-Pro camera facing barren river banks, which was placed there the week before by the Vision for Ecological Restoration. “They want to see how much rain it’s going to take to get this river flowing again,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot.”