NEAR STURBRIDGE - Thomas Baron is cruising west on the Mass. Pike on a bright spring morning, approaching the Interstate 84 exit. He sees the cars and the highway before him, but also, instinctively, inside his head, he sees his progress across a weathered mental map - the one that shows where the next major Massachusetts reservoir should go.
"By the way," he says cheerfully, "we're underwater right now."
Baron spent 26 years helping to manage the Quabbin Reservoir, a feat of civil engineering that, since it was completed in 1939, has guaranteed that densely populated Eastern Massachusetts has all the fresh drinking water it needs. But unlike most of the 2 million people the reservoir now serves, who take their flowing taps for granted, Baron is thinking about water 50, even 100 years into the future - and he believes the state will one day need supplies on an even bigger scale.
New England may so far have avoided the freshwater crisis that hangs over much of the world, but that security may not last forever. Pollution and sprawl are already taxing the region's rivers and underground aquifers, and climate change leaves a big question mark hanging over the region's rainfall.
Baron's solution is a plan so unimaginably vast, so inherently inflammatory, it is almost impossible to fathom. He advocates a network of new reservoirs that would dwarf the Quabbin, slicing top-to-bottom through central Massachusetts, with a scattering of smaller reservoirs in Connecticut and Rhode Island. His dream project, outlined in painstaking detail in two books he has written since retiring from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, could take 85 years and cost $50 billion to build. It would displace 50,000 people and drown all or part of a dozen towns, holding enough water to supply most of southern New England.
It is not a vision for the faint of heart. Water experts, even those who share Baron's worry about the future, say it is unlikely to happen, and is almost certainly a more drastic solution than is needed. But few dispute the underlying worry that drives Baron: The water supply we rely on is under threat from forces both definite and unpredictable, and no one can be sure how long it will last.
"I absolutely agree that the state is not doing the kind of long-term, strategic thinking it should be doing," said Peter Shelley, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Massachusetts Advocacy Center. "We have very serious water problems, there's a lot of work to be done, and if he's trying to shake people up, he's right on the mark."
Baron's long struggle to sell his plan, or even win it a serious look, illuminates the difficulty of preparing for a need as big as the supply of fresh water, when the demand lies sometime in the future and its precise shape is impossible to predict. The Quabbin was a great success, but it submerged four towns - and it is nearly impossible to imagine something like it being built today.
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The problem that preoccupies Baron is only the local version of a concern gripping the world. Far more troubling than the oil crisis, many believe, is the coming shortage of water.
New England has been buffered from the worst of the water shortfalls that plague some parts of the world. Around the globe, millions lack access to clean water, and climate change is expected to worsen droughts in dry zones. The dire predictions include parts of the American West, where precipitation and reservoirs have been drying up as the population has grown, setting off aggressive jockeying for water resources.
Eastern Massachusetts is comparatively wet, soaked by a generous 48 inches of average annual rainfall, compared with 11 inches in Los Angeles. The rain keeps the Quabbin Reservoir naturally filled with enough water to last four years. But the future of that rainfall is uncertain: While scientists generally agree that climate change will drive up temperatures, there is less agreement about its effect on precipitation. One possibility is that New England could get less rain, in which case the adequacy of the current water system would no longer be a sure thing.
"We have a backward-looking sense of confidence, based on weather patterns as we have known them," Shelley said.
The rain that does fall is increasingly being sullied or wasted. As more land is developed and paved over, less water filters into the ground to recharge aquifers. Instead, millions of usable gallons run off into sewers and storm drains and are piped into rivers or out to sea. Pollution washes into streams and rivers, eroding water quality and making it harder to purify.
In some places in Eastern Massachusetts, increasing demands have already choked the flow of rivers. Parts of the Ipswich and Eel have dried up during recent summers, when demand for water doubles or triples. Brockton, in growing Southeastern Massachusetts, built a costly desalination plant to strip the salt out of sea water and ensure its future supply.
The four dozen cities and towns served by the Quabbin may be secure for now, but water problems are already looming for dozens of other communities west of Boston. In a study of 32 towns around Interstate 495 - in one of the state's highest-growth areas, where most towns fend for themselves to find water - the Metro Area Planning Council found about a third are approaching the limit on the volume of ground water they can withdraw, a level set by the state, and another third are likely to approach their limits within 10 to 15 years.
The questions faced by the towns - will there be enough water; will it be clean enough - may not feel urgent to everyone, but given the essential nature of the resource, those uncertainties will spread.
Similar questions faced state leaders in the late 1800s, when the vision for the Quabbin was first developed. The rapidly growing population around Boston made it clear that more water would be needed. It took three decades to plan the reservoir, one of the largest man-made public water supplies in the country, and to win approval and funding from the state Legislature. During a long and bitter fight, residents of the towns slated for destruction sued to stop the project, appealed to the state Supreme Court, and lost.
To Baron, who has spent a lifetime studying the Quabbin - devised by men who sought a 100-year solution to their problem - the 21st century demands another bold, collaborative action, ambitious enough to meet the needs of southern New England.
"Our future history is going to be written by hundreds and thousands of individual decisions, or it can be written by one vision," Baron said. "You can't predict when more water will be needed, so you have to build big up front, and let the population grow to it. . . . Instead of reaching for the resource when you need it, you develop the resource and it's there when you need it."
But state officials say that Baron's idea for an even grander new reservoir system is based on outdated worries about the appetite for water, in part because water management has improved. Much work has been done to curb the needless loss of fresh water, by stemming pipeline leaks and cutting industry waste, said Marcis Kempe, a director of operations support for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
The system's two reservoirs, the Quabbin and the Wachusett, are actually supplying less water today than they were 20 years ago, from 340 million gallons a day down to about 220 million, well within safe levels. The MWRA, which manages the reservoirs, has even offered memberships to additional towns facing problems with their own resources.
"I respect Tom, and he has a long history here, but it's an age that's passed," said Kempe. "He's solving a problem that's already been solved."
Baron responds that the Quabbin region may be fine, but the rest of New England, increasingly, will not be. In other words, water officials just aren't thinking big enough.
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Baron's obsession with reservoir building started early, when his father took him on drives to see the Quabbin. On one excursion, he remembers, he asked his father if another Quabbin could be built. At 16, he won first prize at his high school science fair for a project that proposed another reservoir.
"The Quabbin was my template, my laboratory," says Baron.
On a field trip to the Quabbin with the engineer as guide, it is easy to understand the young boy's fascination. The size of the reservoir, 38 square miles, makes it mysterious, impossible to see in its entirety, while its pristine, fjord-like beauty defies the ugliness that attended its creation. An unsuspecting visitor would never guess the lake was man-made, if not for the scattered shorefront historical markers, including one that points out where the town of Enfield stood before it was "discontinued" in 1938 to make way for 90 feet of water.
Seventy years later, the reservoir's success has not buffed away the scars from its construction. A handful of former residents still gather regularly to remember the towns that were taken - Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott. One, Enfield native Bob Wilder, now in his 70s, said he gives talks to 1,000 people every year to keep alive the memory of what was lost to the water.
He recently spoke at a nursing home in West Brookfield, one of the towns that would be submerged under Baron's proposal.
"If I was younger, and someone at the State House proposed this idea, I would drag myself there and picket day and night," said Wilder, whose family was forced to leave Enfield when he was a boy. "It hurts people to a depth you can't imagine, when someone tells you you can never go back to your home."
Wilder says it has taken him a lifetime to recognize the benefits of the reservoir. Multiply his feelings thousands of times, and it starts to become clear what kind of challenges Baron's plan would face, even if officials did agree on the need to build it. Centrally planned countries like China may be flooding valleys with massive dams, but in densely developed New England, where little space remains between existing neighborhoods and infrastructure, the challenge of the big idea may never have been greater. Humans struggle to think in terms of centuries, and naturally resist bearing costs that only benefit later generations.
The region's most recent megaproject, the $15 billion Big Dig, now seems like an object lesson in that difficulty. Yet somehow, not so long ago, the idea of an underground highway captured the imagination of the people, who saw it as a pathway to improvement, said Fred Salvucci, one of the project's earliest proponents.
That consensus, the rarest of commodities, he said, is vital to any proposal to build on such a grand scale.
"You can win an election with a 51-49 vote, but public works projects don't happen that way," said Salvucci. "You need support, and practically no opposition."
Walking through the pretty cemetery on the Quabbin Reservoir property where the graves from the four flooded towns were relocated, Baron says he understands the human toll of his proposal. The monuments from the drowned town commons stand there too: A pair of cannons from Dana; a stone-carved soldier from Enfield.
But the landscape of the past is just a prologue to the future, Baron says later, stopped at a light beside a Spencer cemetery - "a big one, unfortunately" - that would have to be moved to make way for his lake.
The leading advocate for the creation of the Quabbin, X. Henry Goodnough, died without seeing it finished, Baron points out. So he keeps on talking about water, to customers at the wine shops where he works, to Rhode Island legislators who are studying water use. If they listen, they'll hear not just a reservoir plan, but an uncomfortable reminder of the effort required to shift public thinking from the present to the future - and of the sacrifices sometimes needed to ensure that the future world remains as secure in its resources as ours.
"Many people have said to me, 'Someone's got to be thinking about this,' " Baron said. "If that's the task that falls to me, I accept it."
Jenna Russell covers New England for the Globe.