Water Usage | Globe Editorial

Keeping rivers from going dry

July 14, 2011

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THANKS TO abundant levels of annual rainfall, Massachusetts doesn’t have to drain the brook trout’s habitat in the Westfield River to supply clean drinking water to families in Springfield. But because the Commonwealth lacks specific standards for minimum water levels, human activity still causes the Westfield, Sudbury, Neponset, Jones and other rivers to shrink or even dry up around August each year. The problem is disruptive for boaters, swimmers, and fishermen - not to mention the tourism industries they support. And for fish and other aquatic wildlife, low water levels can be deadly: They intensify the impacts of pollution, spur algae growth, and lead to oxygen-poor warmer water.

The state can begin to address the problem today, when the Legislature’s Environment Committee holds a hearing on the Sustainable Water Resources Act. Hopefully, the hearing will spur the Legislature to pass the bill. More than 1 in 10 small rivers and tributaries in Massachusetts suffers from unnecessarily low water flow, even though the state is home to abundant alternative resources for water users, like the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Quabbin Reservoir. The problem starts with municipalities and property owners who extract too much water from local watersheds without understanding the impact they are having on natural ecosystems.

If approved, the law would require the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Fish and Game to define the amount of water rivers need to support aquatic life, known as streamflow standards. The standards would be used to help residents and municipalities determine how much water they can safely extract from rivers, streams, and wells. They would also help water users identify when they should tap into other sources, like the Quabbin Reservoir.

Today’s hearing comes as the Patrick administration, environmentalists, farm groups, and others are all working to steer the state’s water policy toward more sustainable practices. So there’s an opportunity for policy makers to balance the needs of businesses and communities with those of the environment. Passing the Sustainable Water Resources Act would be a good first step.