Massachusetts officials are scheduled to unveil a new framework Thursday to allocate water from streams and rivers, a long-awaited plan that aims to prevent waterways from running dry but could translate into higher water rates and more bans on lawn watering.
The new guidelines are expected to require communities to work harder to fix leaky pipes and inject water back into the ground that is taken out for drinking, showering, and gardening. While final rules are expected by the end of next year, the new regulations will not begin to be phased in until 2014 and will continue through 2019, as water withdrawal permits come up for renewal.
Officials say the framework is meant to ensure that there is enough water in rivers and streams to allow fish to live and people to enjoy waterways while giving communities sufficient water for residents and businesses.
“This framework is establishing overall goals and expectations grounded in science on how we are going to allocate water,” said Kenneth L. Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. It “will result in clear and predictable standards to encourage other communities to make sound investments in sustaining their water resources.”
Many environmental groups, while praising the formula’s science and the state for taking on a daunting task, said they would reserve judgment on the plan until they see how permits would be crafted in the future. Others said the framework fails to truly protect rivers and streams. A water industry group said the rules would cause burdensome permitting and uncertainty about water rates.
With about 4 feet of rainfall a year, Massachusetts has long escaped the water woes evident in the Western United States in recent years. The bountiful Quabbin Reservoir provides water for drinking, showering, and lawn watering to dozens of communities in Eastern and Central Massachusetts and has so much left over that reservoir managers want to sell the surplus.
Yet suburban and rural communities outside that system must draw water from wells and rivers, some of which are becoming increasingly imperiled. More than 300 streams or sections of streams — about 23 percent of those in Massachusetts — have water withdrawals large enough to harm fish or fish habitat during the summer.
The new framework, which took 2½ years to develop, will for the first time tie state water withdrawal permits to the health of rivers and streams. Each waterway will receive a grade based on its biological health and how much water is being taken from it — and how much water should flow for it to be healthy. For waterways already experiencing low water levels, officials will develop a blueprint to return water if too much is taken.
The announcement comes three years after representatives of four influential environment groups quit a state water advisory panel over a new policy that they said doled out water with no regard for stream or river health.
A truce was declared, and state officials pledged to work with the groups to develop a formula that would satisfy a 1986 Water Management Act mandate to calculate “safe yield,” how much water can safely be taken from a waterway during a drought while protecting fish and river health.
Environmentalists said that the framework expected to be announced Thursday is hardly the safeguard needed to protect rivers.
“The promise that safe yield would include ecological protection of rivers was not fulfilled,’’ said Kerry Mackin of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, a nonprofit that works to protect that river. The Ipswich River is widely considered to be one of the most stressed in the state and has had significant fish die-offs because parts of it have run dry.
“The scientific aspect of this is very good; it’s excellent,” Mackin said. “But it is actually translating that science into policy is where everything is falling apart.”
Jennifer Pederson — executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, a membership organization of water suppliers — said she had not seen the final framework, but was deeply concerned about its scientific basis and what it will mean for water rates and permitting.
“It certainly introduces significant uncertainty for communities,’’ Pederson said. She said the mathematical modeling the state came up with does not always reflect the reality in rivers or streams. “It will also set in place a regulatory process significantly more rigorous, burdensome, and costly,” she said.
State officials said they understand the criticisms, but note that the 1986 law is designed to balance economic and ecological interests. He said the rules would ultimately benefit waterways and people, in large part by promoting water conservation.
The state is now testing the new formula in four water districts — Amherst, Danvers-Middleton, Dedham-Westwood, and Shrewsbury — to understand impacts of the formula to help better draft final rules.
State officials say they envision more communities will become like Franklin, which has decreased town water use by about 500,000 gallons a day, to about 2.6 million gallons. Jeff Nutting, Franklin’s town administrator, said the community accomplished that, in part, by fixing leaks, restricting residential lawn watering to one day a week, getting rid of sidewalks on one side of some subdivision streets to allow water to seep back into the earth, and creating rain gardens.
The downside in Franklin was that water rates went up, Nutting said. That is because there are fixed costs in sanitizing and delivering water, so if water use goes down, the per-gallon cost to cover those fixed costs must go up. But, he added, conservation efforts have helped cut demand and cost.
“For the first time, DEP has the science — and plans to use it — to connect water allocation to stream flow,’’ said Julia Blatt of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, a coalition of state river and environmental groups. But “as with any large, complicated new policy, the devil is in the details,” she said.