Tag Archives: water

Local Efforts Make the Difference for Water Conservation

by Ariel Maiorano

Remember the drought of 2016? Wells went dry, and reservoirs dropped precipitously low. The second-largest city in New England, Worcester, ran so low on water that they had to tap into additional sources (to the tune of over $1 million). Unfortunately, droughts are becoming increasingly more frequent and extreme, especially as our climate changes. Even though Massachusetts receives 15% more water annually compared to averages in the early 20th century, that precipitation now arrives in heavy bursts followed by prolonged dry spells. These dry times have enormous implications for municipal drinking water supplies. Luckily, there’s a lot we can do to protect those supplies, some of which is extremely low cost.

In a local letter to the editor published earlier this month in the Sharon Advocate , resident and town Water Conservation Estimator Paul Lauenstein shared  that the Town of Sharon reduced their annual water consumption to the lowest it’s been since 1984 thanks to public education and outreach. You can find the text of Lauenstein’s letter here.

Overall, the town of about 18,000 has reduced public well water pumping by one-third since its peak in the mid-1990s, from upwards of 600 million gallons to below 400 million gallons. Below is a figure from the town’s 2016 Water Quality Report, detailing the decrease in water usage since the 1995 spike.

Source: Water Quality Report for 2016, Town of Sharon

Lauenstein’s letter attributes Sharon’s success to adopting policies like rebates for resource-efficient appliances, and incorporating environmental education into public school curricula to shift local practices. The town Water Department also prioritized leak repairs and included reminders to reduce consumptions in water bills.  By taking low-cost and common-sense approaches to water conservation, the town successfully and significantly reduced community-wide water usage.

Water conservation offers a broad range of benefits, including improved public health, cost savings, resource availability, ecosystem value, and well-being of wildlife.  Sufficient water supplies are critical to communities throughout the Commonwealth that pump locally-sourced groundwater to meet the needs of their populations.

One of the many benefits of conservation listed by Lauenstein is the preservation of Atlantic White Cedar Swamp. This rare habitat not only provides spectacular habitat for local species and recreational benefits from wildlife watching, but it also provides the service of filtering and purifying water on-site that is later pumped by local wells. By conserving water to keep this resource healthy, Sharon is letting nature work for them and allowing the ecosystems to purify water so that built infrastructure doesn’t have to.  “Green infrastructure” exists in every community and by prioritizing its protection, communities can improve their bottom line as well as enjoy co-benefits like  flood reduction and improved climate resilience.

Conserving wetlands, which naturally absorb floodwater, is one way to reap the benefits of “green infrastructure.” Photo credit: USFWS

Mass Audubon’s Shaping the  Future of Your Community Program encourages communities across the Commonwealth to identify naturally-occurring  green infrastructure in their own towns, and to take steps to conserve it. Check out our five-part guide that introduces you to what green infrastructure is, how to protect it, and how to re-incorporate it in already-developed areas. Ready to take the next step? Learn how to update your local bylaws and regulations to encourage these types of nature-based solutions.

Whether your community is conserving landscapes like Atlantic White Cedar Swamp, or is looking for more cost-effective ways to manage local water, we can follow the Town of Sharon’s common sense approach.

Ariel Maiorano is Mass Audubon’s Assistant Coordinator for the Shaping the Future of Your Community Program

Mass Audubon Receives Grant to Help Communities Restore Water Quality

Our Shaping the Future of Your Community program has received a grant from the Foundation for MetroWest to help communities protect and restore natural water balance and water quality through resilient landscapes. This work will focus on the MetroWest region of Massachusetts, which is experiencing climate change through more intense storm events punctuated by increased frequency of droughts – impacts that are only expected to worsen in the future. Events like these contribute to increased floods, erosion, and water pollution as well as periods of low or no flow in streams, which can stress fish and other aquatic life.

The impacts are amplified when we cover forests and fields that soak up and filter water with impervious surfaces, like sprawling developments and wide roads, that create water runoff that carries pollution into our waterways.

The Assabet River in Hudson, MA. Photo credit: John Phelan

We will introduce public and municipal officials to a more natural approach to land management through Low Impact Development (LID) and native plants. The project will demonstrate how local decisions can restore the water cycle and water quality while providing an attractive, high-quality landscape and improving climate resilience for current and future generations. The goal is to increase awareness and adoption of these cost-effective and practical techniques.

Our water resources are increasingly stressed, but conserving and restoring the natural landscape with native plants can offer social, environmental, and economic benefits.

 

Established in 1995, the Foundation for MetroWest is the only community foundation serving the 33 cities and towns in the region. The Foundation promotes philanthropy in the region, helps donors maximize the impact of their local giving, serve as a resource for local nonprofits and enhance the quality of life for all our residents. Since inception, the Foundation has granted $11.6 million to charitable organizations and currently stewards more than $15 million in charitable assets for current needs and future impact. 

Action You Can Take This Week – Water Protections Under Threat

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been ordered by the President to repeal a rule that defines wetlands and waterways protected nationwide under the Clean Water Act.

The “Waters of the United States” rule, issued in 2015, was developed following extensive scientific and public input.  Under the guise of returning power to the states, this repeal would eliminate protection for up to 60% of streams and wetlands, including areas that contribute to water supplies for 117 million people.

Photo credit: Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration

The EPA has opened a 30-day public comment period on the proposed repeal. Mass Audubon is submitting comments, and you can too. Ask EPA to keep protections in place for these streams and wetlands that are vital to both people and wildlife.

Water does not follow state boundaries. It is one of our most fundamental natural resources and must be protected, from headwater streams and vernal pools to main stem rivers and the ocean.

A Cleaner Housatonic River

Mass Audubon has submitted two court documents in support of the responsible cleanup of the Housatonic River.

For several decades through the 1970s, General Electric (GE) manufactured and serviced electrical transformers containing toxic and persistent PCB chemicals. During those years, GE polluted the Housatonic River and surrounding lands over several decades with hundreds of tons of PCBs, which pose threats to human health and wildlife. Efforts to mitigate this environmental disaster have been ongoing since the 1980s, and the “Rest of River” (an administrative term designating the river below Pittsfield) cleanup under this permit will take an estimated 13 years.  Even after the cleanup is completed, PCBs will remain present throughout extensive lands along and near the river. The chemicals will persist for many decades, likely even hundreds of years.

Mass Audubon’s Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary

The Housatonic River Valley features tremendous ecological, scenic, tourism, and community values and it is vital that these be protected and restored. As a directly impacted landowner—our Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary is located on the river in Pittsfield—Mass Audubon has been closely engaged in the planning process for the cleanup for many years. Canoe Meadows is located at the head of the “Rest of River,” where the methods for the cleanup will first be applied, and this sanctuary contains habitat that supports numerous rare and common species of plants and animals.

Mass Audubon submitted two Amicus Briefs – one of our own, and one in partnership with the Housatonic Rest of River Municipal Committee – supporting a strong Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permit governing the implementation of this crucial environmental cleanup project. This includes a requirement for off-site disposal of PCBs at a licensed, hazardous waste facility, and the dredging of Woods Pond in Lenox, where PCBs have settled for generations behind a dam on the river. We also support the permit requirements for compliance with the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, as cleanup activities will impact habitats of several state-listed rare plants and animals.

Housatonic River. Photo credit: mass.gov

We’ve urged that the final EPA permit make it clear that GE will be responsible in perpetuity for managing the persistent environmental contamination that will remain even after the cleanup, and that affected communities and landowners have input into the cleanup plan.

Read our full position statement on the Housatonic PCB cleanup.

Don’t Love That Dirty Water

by Karen Heymann

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) finalized a new ‘Clean Water Rule’ clarifying protections for navigable waterways of the US and providing protection for the tributaries that impact downstream waters, as well as wetlands and waters adjacent to rivers and lakes.

Last month, the Trump Administration issued an Executive Order initiating the process of rolling back this updated rule, commonly referred to as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The rule, finalized by the previous administration, has been disputed as government overreach by opponents such as current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who in 2015 led a multi-state lawsuit against the rule in his role as Oklahoma’s Attorney General.

At the core of the current dispute is a lack of agreement over how the EPA and Corps define which waters are protected under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Despite the scientific evidence supporting the adoption of more stringent regulations, concerns over the rights over private property owners as well as states to alter or impact smaller bodies of water is driving opposition to the new rule.

The Clean Water Rule protects our streams and wetlands that feed our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Photo credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service

The Administration’s latest attempt to unravel the CWA is a classic ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario, pitting private property rights against the management of a common resource. In seeking to undermine the Clean Water Act, policy makers are failing in their duty to ensure that individual interests and actions, such as dumping pollutants in stream or filling in a wetland, do not outweigh the interests of protecting our common water resources.

To arrive at the final rule, EPA and the Corps examined more than 1,200 scientific peer-reviewed publications and summarized the latest scientific understanding of how streams and wetlands affect the physical, chemical and biological integrity of downstream waters. The science was clear: in order to protect our nation’s navigable rivers and streams smaller bodies of water such as wetlands and tributaries must be protected as well.

WOTUS was a step in the right direction, but even more efforts will be needed to ensure the integrity of our nation’s water resources. In Massachusetts, we have state and local water resource protection laws that offer more stringent protections for our lakes, rivers and streams compared with federal laws, and our economy is among the strongest in the nation. While there is no one size fits all solution for the management of our water resources, federal lawmakers should look beyond the political rhetoric over WOTUS and more strongly support the science that justifies the need for stronger policies to protect the nation’s waterways.

Mass Audubon serves on the Board of Mass Rivers Alliance – see what our partners there are doing to protect the waters of Massachusetts.

Karen Heymann is Mass Audubon’s Legislative Director

2016 Drought Can Help Us Prepare for Climate Change

By Daniel Brown, Heidi Ricci, and Stefanie Covino

The grass on the Common in front of the State House is brown. Plants and trees at Mass Audubon sanctuaries are looking a bit wilted. Community reservoirs are running low. It’s not your imagination. It’s been very dry.

Severe Drought in Massachusetts

About a third of Massachusetts is under severe drought. Another third is in a moderate drought, and the rest of the state is abnormally dry. Since roughly the beginning of the year, Massachusetts is about 5 inches below normal precipitation totals. That means we’ve seen 20-25% less precipitation than by this point in an average year. June 2016 ranked as the 12th driest on record since 1895. April through June ranked as the 14th driest.

US Drought Monitor map of MA July 2016

US Drought Monitor map of MA July 2016

While the current level of drought is unpleasant and problematic, it’s certainly not unheard of. We’ve seen conditions like the current state of affairs 4 times since 1980 both in terms of short term and long term drought. So why all the attention now? The short answer is climate change.

Old Problems with a New Dimension

Many of the problems with water and land use in Massachusetts have been apparent for some time. Land use patterns in Massachusetts break the natural water cycle. Most new residential developments have wide roads, and big, thirsty lawns. Commercial and industrial parking lots, impervious to rain, reduce the amount of water that percolates back into the ground, leading to dry aquifers and streams. Meanwhile, demand on water supplies for residential, agricultural, and commercial use has led to the depletion of water across eastern Massachusetts and in many other locations.

Impacts to Nature and Public Health

If these land and water use trends continue, our seasonal water supply will be increasingly stressed with each drought. Rivers and streams will continue to dry up. The impacts on nature, including fish kills, algae blooms, and degraded habitat for other aquatic species like turtles, amphibians, and mussels, will become even more pressing.

Example of an algal bloom. Photo credit: MA Department of Environmental Protection

Example of an algal bloom. Photo credit: MA Department of Environmental Protection

Climate Change and Future Drought Conditions

Climate change amplifies the existing challenges of land and water use. Most climate models project that summer drought conditions like this will become more frequent in the future. We can’t say this single drought is caused by climate change, but we can say climate change will make these types of dry periods more likely. And when the rains do come, it is more likely to be in intense downpours that can cause erosion, flooding and damage to infrastructure–especially in areas where pavement prevents the water from soaking into the ground and instead channels it into high-volume flows.

Using Droughts of Today to Prepare for Climate Change of Tomorrow

While these are troubling problems, there are realistic, practical solutions we can pursue, and there are positive actions we can take. If we want our communities to prepare responsibly for future water use and the challenges of climate change, droughts like this one can be used to directly identify what challenges may become more frequent or costly in the future. By addressing current problems that pop up during what is now a relatively infrequent set of conditions, we can better prepare for a future where those problems occur more often. It is an unfortunate teachable moment, but one that can help us learn how to better manage our natural resources.

Poor Farm Brook in Shewsbury. The City of Worcester recently installed a rain garden to aid flow in this brook.

Poor Farm Brook, Shrewsbury. The City of Worcester recently installed a rain garden to aid flow to this brook that borders both communities.

What You Can Do

  • Most importantly, encourage your communities to protect open spaces and natural areas. In undeveloped areas, the most effective solution to climate change and drought is to let nature take care of itself.
  • Encourage your community to utilize Low Impact Development (LID) options that provide the housing and jobs we need while making our cities healthier and more attractive.
  • Urge your state legislators to support  climate change preparedness and sustainable water management
  • You can help by using water efficiently around your home and yard. Avoid nonessential uses car washing during the drought and collect rainwater all year long to use when you really need it. Let your grass grow a little taller, helping it grow long roots to retain moisture – and follow our State House’s example – let your lawn turn brown, and encourage your neighbors to do the same! When cooler weather comes, they’ll green turn once again

Daniel Brown is Climate Change Program Coordinator, Heidi Ricci is Senior Policy Analyst, and Stefanie Covino is Project Coordinator, Shaping the Future of Your Community Program