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Quality at Quabbin

THE QUABBIN Reservoir, an 87,000-acre state reservation 65 miles from Boston, shows the ability of government to solve an essential societal problem -- assuring a supply of drinkable water to a large metropolitan area. Quabbin's recent history also provides evidence that government, given the right institutional tools and adequate financial resources, can enhance its capability to perform this mission.

Quabbin is run so well that Katherine F. Abbott, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation for more than a year, did not pay a visit until a few days ago.

Even before the creation of Abbott's department in 2003 -- a combination of the Metropolitan District Commission and the Department of Environmental Management -- Quabbin was one of the best-managed reservations in the state. Quabbin has been supplying water to the Boston area since 1946, but its capacity was stressed by chronic leaks in the system. Creation of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in 1984 provided a new source of funding to fix leaks while the reservation remained under control of the Metropolitan District Commission.

An annual MWRA subsidy spared Quabbin from the vicissitudes of Beacon Hill's annual budget process. During the last economic downtown, MWRA officials worried that the MDC was siphoning Quabbin money to use in its urban parks. Senator Stephen M. Brewer, Democrat of Barre, was especially concerned because his district encompasses the reservoir. People he represents have strong memories of the 1930s, when the Legislature ordered four towns -- Enfield, Dana, Prescott, and Greenwich -- legally dissolved and physically leveled to make way for the Quabbin.

The Romney administration was also worried. The Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, which oversees Abbott's department, negotiated an agreement with the MWRA defining the responsibilities for Quabbin and specifying the level of support -- now $20 million a year. Brewer added an amendment to the budget this year that put the MWRA subsidy under the control of a trust administered by representatives of the MWRA, the Office of Environmental Affairs, the Legislature, and sportsmen from the area. This agreement and the budgetary rider should insure that the Quabbin is well managed for MWRA water users and nearby residents.

William Pula, the Quabbin superintendent, is already noticing changes. "It's a little easier for us to spend money and justify our purchases," he said last week.

A long history of good stewardship was evident as Pula showed Abbott around. Forester Steve Ward was proud of the careful harvesting of trees. Timber cutting earns Quabbin $1 million a year, and it fosters an optimum mix of trees to filter ground water before it enters the reservoir.

Pula and Ward explained the necessity for a deer hunt, scheduled for next month. Deer would otherwise eat away at the tree cover. Yet they are also among the most beloved Quabbin attractions for sightseers, who can travel freely through three-quarters of the reservation. Since 9/11, vehicles have been kept off Winsor Dam, which restrains the 412 billion gallons of water in the reservoir. Pula also took Abbott on a boat ride, starting at one of the three landings where motor craft can be rented for fishing April through October. Is there gasoline in the water? "Everyone asks that" Pula said, "and there are traces of hydrocarbons in the immediate area." But he explained that these are dissipated as the water makes a four-year passage through the reservoir before entering the MWRA system. Boats are barred from the area around the intake to Boston.

As a result of her trip, Abbott may make minor changes -- some of the rangers assigned to Quabbin may be incorporated into the overall program -- but otherwise she was well satisfied.

Likewise, the MWRA is content. The Quabbin system is capable of sending it 300 million gallons a day, but only 230 million are needed to supply the needs of 2.2 million people thanks to pipe repairs, conservation measures, and less use by industry.

Because of the surplus, residents of Wilmington, Westwood, Dedham, and Reading may soon be enjoying Quabbin water as a supplement to their local supplies. With continued prudent management by government, Quabbin will supply the Boston area with all the water it needs for generations to come. 

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