Every summer, in the green heart of verdant New England, streams run dry.
“By August, more than one in ten watersheds of small rivers and tributaries in Massachusetts will suffer water levels so low that fish, wildlife, boaters and fishermen begin to see impacts,” said Alison Bowden, Director of Freshwater Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, a member of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.
Later this week, Massachusetts residents will have the opportunity to express their concerns at a public hearing on legislation to address the problem of low river levels.
To draw attention to the challenges of low flow, The Nature Conservancy and its partners at the Alliance have developed a list of examples of the Commonwealth’s rivers at risk – locations that frequently suffer low water, as well as highlighting communities that are taking action to address their water challenges:
Rivers at Risk: Sudbury River, Hopkinton; Westfield River, Westfield; Neponset River, Boston; Jones River, Kingston.
Communities Making Progress: Charles River, Franklin and Holliston; First Herring Brook, Scituate; Eel River, Plymouth; Weymouth Back River, Weymouth; Ipswich River, Danvers and Reading; Taunton River, Sharon.
“Here in Massachusetts, we’re lucky to receive about 44 inches of rain each year, which should be enough to provide for people and nature. But when we take too much water from our rivers, streams and wells, or withdraw water at the wrong times, our rivers suffer,” Bowden said.
Low water intensifies the impacts of pollution, can spur algae growth and lead to warmer water that may be inhospitable for fish. And low-water rivers often can’t support the recreational boating, fishing and tourism that supports our economy. Climate change impacts will only worsen these problems, according to Bowden.
For many years, conservation leaders from watershed associations around the state have advocated for the adoption of statewide standards to ensure that rivers and streams have enough water to support fish, wildlife, and recreation, particularly during the summertime.
“We now have the science to understand how water withdrawals affect nearby streams. The time has come for Massachusetts, like Maine before it, to establish streamflow standards to ensure that fish and other aquatic life have enough water to live migrate and reproduce in the state’s rivers and streams. Streamflow standards are the foundation of sustainable water management,” said Julia Blatt, Executive Director of the Massachusetts River Alliance.
Massachusetts policymakers and stakeholders have been working in several forums to address the issue of sustainable water management. Many of these processes are reaching significant milestones or coming to closure to create an unprecedented opportunity for Massachusetts to address water policy issues:
• For the past 18 months, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has been leading a stakeholder process to contemplate policy proposals to advance an integrated approach to sustainable water management, including the amount of water needed for both people and nature. This ambitious effort, known as the Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI), has involved multiple stakeholders, and should conclude by early fall.
• A second group, the Massachusetts Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, chaired by Senator Jamie Eldridge (Acton), has been wrestling with examining the Commonwealth’s water infrastructure needs and funding options during the past year and is currently developing policy recommendations.
• And finally, on this Thursday, July 14, the Legislature’s Environment Committee will hold a hearing on a bill − The Sustainable Water Resources Act S.349/H.225, sponsored respectively by Senator Jamie Eldridge (Acton) and Representative Frank Smizik (Brookline) − that would require the Department of Environmental Protection, in cooperation with the Department of Fish and Game, to establish science-based criteria that define the amount of water rivers need – known as streamflow standards.
Many Massachusetts communities are already leading the way with innovative strategies to conserve water and manage their water use with nature in mind. The Town of Danvers has structured development fees to provide funds for water conservation projects that benefit the Ipswich River, Scituate leaders have restricted lawn watering to protect the First Herring Brook, and in Plymouth, developers worked to increase the amount of stormwater that returns to the Eel River.
“Every community, every household, every kitchen sink matters,” said Bowden. “We all can make a difference by being active citizens in our communities and conserving water.”
What can you do?
• Install modern low-flow appliances.
• Use native and drought-tolerant plants for landscaping to reduce the need for watering.
• Find out where your water comes from.
• Compare your daily water usage to the state standard of 65 gallons per person per day − some people use less than 20 − or share a video about how your household water use compares to others around the world.
• Talk to your local Representative and State Senator about the need for stream flow standards.
• Use phosphate-free detergents and organic lawn fertilizers to reduce the pollution that’s exacerbated by low water.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Senior Media Relations Manager, The Nature Conservancy