THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

And now, a sort of regional dowsing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2008

When it comes to preserving open space, every community in the region pretty much works on its own. But when billions of gallons of drinking water in the Plymouth-Carver aquifer are at stake, representatives of seven towns work together.

It's the only way.

The seven-town Plymouth-Carver Aquifer Advisory Committee is mapping the location of the region's most environmentally sensitive and valuable land, under which the 200-square-mile underground reservoir lies. It is the second-largest underground reservoir in the state and the principal water source for Plymouth, Carver, Kingston, Plympton, Middleborough, Wareham, and Bourne.

The advisory committee is preparing a regional open-space plan members hope will encourage cooperation among towns on land acquisition and protection and put aquifer protection at the top of each town's open-space priority list.

Rather than "mainly look at what's within our boundaries," as each town currently does, said Lee Hartmann, Plymouth's director of planning and development, a cross-borders open-space plan can "help us with what's going on at a regional level."

Well sites, and future well sites, are high priorities when it comes to protecting drinking water quality, the aquifer group determined. The committee has identified what environmental planners call "recharge areas," places where ground water feeds a well that provides a community's drinking water.

The recharge area is "where rainwater seeps into the land and is drawn out of a well," said Kristin Uiterwyk, a research associate for Urban Harbors Institute, the project's University of Massachusetts Boston-based consultant. It's the area that communities most need to keep contaminant-free, she said, to keep drinking water safe. So far, the group has produced a map that identifies recharge areas related to current wells and also highlights areas where wells are either planned or likely to be dug in the future.

While the aquifer includes land from seven communities, some are more central. The aquifer sits below all of 100-square-mile Plymouth and almost all of neighboring Carver. But most of the recharge areas mapped lie in Plymouth, Kingston, and Wareham.

The map also serves to highlight recharge areas that cross town boundaries. Plymouth shares large recharge areas with Kingston to the north and Wareham to the south and a smaller one with Carver to the west. Carver is planning to build its first municipal well this year.

Those boundary crossing areas show where opportunities for collaboration in land protection and property acquisitions among towns exist, officials said. State officials are partial to grant applications that benefit more than one community, Plymouth's Hartmann pointed out.

Another way the aquifer towns can cooperate is being sensitive to their neighbors' water supply. If a neighboring town's recharge area is on your border, Uiterwyk said, "don't put a dump in that area." Identifying recharge areas also helps spotlight parcels within those areas that are not well protected. Agricultural parcels such as cranberry bogs and privately owned undeveloped properties may currently be protected by a law that gives owners a tax break to keep the land open. But that's a temporary level of protection, Uiterwyk said, because owners can choose to opt out.

In addition to identifying recharge areas, the regional plan will help towns fine-tune their own open-space plans, by showing where land acquisitions can protect water in addition to meeting other needs, committee members said. Local open-space plans tend to focus on goals such as habitat protection, keeping land from development, and recreation. "If you can protect the aquifer too, it may make one site more valuable than another," said David Gould, Plymouth's environmental manager.

Towns write their own open-space plans, but need to revise them every five years to remain eligible for some state grants. Plympton is preparing its first open-space plan. Carver needs to gear up to revise its plan next year.

Plymouth's plan has emphasized connected protected areas and corridors of open space, Hartmann said. Towns can connect these across their boundaries too, he said - another opportunity for cross-town collaboration.

Sarah Hewins, of the aquifer committee, agreed the committee prioritizes open space. "In the best of all possible worlds, unfragmented open space makes for a healthier aquifer," she said.

The committee meets monthly in Carver's town hall. The next meeting will be held tonight at 7. Next month's date has not been determined yet.

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox@gmail.com.

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