Concerns are rising on water overuse

Fish stock, rivers drop as lawns soak

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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Almost 100 Massachusetts communities from Sunderland to Somerset are exceeding state guidelines that aim to limit residential water use to 65 gallons a day per person, drawing down water in dozens of Massachusetts rivers and streams and imperiling the region's bounty of freshwater fish.

Much of the excess water is used to beautify expansive green yards in affluent communities like Lincoln and Wayland and feed automated sprinklers that burst forth even when rain pours from the sky. At the same time, hundreds of homeowners are digging private irrigation wells each year in part to duck local lawn-watering restrictions - but drawing from the same stressed waters the rules are meant to protect.

With lawn watering season just getting underway, the state says there are 160 rivers and streams in the state that already suffer from low flows or water levels. Some, like parts of the Jones River in Kingston, run bone dry some summers.

And a new state Department of Fish & Game report shows river fish are disap pearing from many Massachusetts waterways - including the upper Charles and Blackstone rivers - in part because too much water is being taken from them. Brook trout, a local favorite, have all but disappeared from the parched upper Ipswich River. The stock of native bait fish such as common shiners have plummeted in the Blackstone.

Overwatering is to blame for much of the excess demand, local officials say.

"You can be out in a downpour and the sprinklers are on - it's frustrating," said Al Renzi, water superintendent for the Sudbury Water District, which pumps from a stressed water basin. His community uses 76 gallons per person per day. "It's frustrating because you know the water does not need to be running down [the sidewalk] and people are probably overwatering."

What's true in Sudbury is true in communities across the state. Based on 2007 state data: Southborough residents use the equivalent of 85 gallons of water a day each. In Lincoln, it's 75 gallons. Wayland, 87. In Weston, which draws water from the abundant Quabbin Reservoir, residents use 135 gallons per person. And the tiny Plymouth Water Company, which delivers water to about 800 homes in that town, delivers a whopping 167 gallons per person a day.

With about 4 feet of rainfall a year, Massachusetts has long escaped the water woes so visible in the Western United States. The enormous Quabbin provides ample water for drinking, showering, and lawn watering to dozens of communities in Eastern and Central Massachusetts and has so much left over its managers want to sell it. Yet suburban and rural communities outside that system have to draw water from the 11,000 miles of rivers and streams that crisscross the state or from aquifers and other reservoirs.

Now, as climate change threatens to bring more intense periods of drought and rain, water scientists say residents, water suppliers, and state officials are running out of time to balance the demands of people with the needs of nature.

Five years ago, the state established one of the strictest residential water use standards in the country: Most communities will have to meet the 65-gallon standard and ensure that no more than 10 percent of their water is unaccounted for because of leaks or other reasons. The state is working to phase in those rules by 2017 at the latest.

"What we are trying to do here is create sustainable water practice," said Laurie Burt, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The state is also providing communities with money and expertise to help reduce water use and develop conservation rules that, for example, tie higher water rates to more water use and restrict outdoor water use between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Massachusetts Water Works Association, which represents the state's water suppliers, says the 65-gallon limit - the equivalent of 1,040 glasses of water - is unrealistic, arguing that, nationally, the daily residential average is closer to 100 gallons per person. Some suppliers also say that if water is ample, people should be allowed to use as much as they need.

"I can understand limiting water in a stressed basin, but we aren't in one," said Don Rugg of Sarian Company Inc., which manages the water supply for Plymouth Water Company. "Sixty-five gallons a day doesn't cut the mustard, not if you have a family of four, laundry, car washing, and teenage girls that can take a shower for an hour."

Yet Burt and water conservationists insist 65 gallons is a reasonable goal that most communities should try to abide by - even if they have healthy water supplies or are not required to - in order to protect sources before they go scarce.

The average US home consumes about 69 gallons of water per person each day for indoor use and 32 gallons outdoors, according to federal statistics and the 2001 Handbook of Water Use and Conservation.

But it is not that hard, water advocates say, to reduce indoor usage to 40 gallons or even lower, in part by being aware of how much water you are using. For example, a full bath tub requires about 70 gallons of water, while taking a five-minute shower uses 10 to 25, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The average washing machine uses about 41 gallons of water per load.

Sharon resident Paul Lauenstein has reduced his total consumption to 35 gallons per day in part because he has high-efficiency toilets, which use only 1.1 gallons per flush. Every day, he and a group of local volunteers take measurements of flowing water - a key indicator of a waterway's health - near Sharon's town wells. His one-acre lot is carpeted with thick, green grass he never waters.

Lauenstein said sprinkler systems may appear to return water to the ground, but most is actually lost to evaporation or pours off compacted soil onto sidewalks, into streets, and down storm-water drains that carry it far away. Water conservationists focus on lawn watering because it is not considered essential and the water is being taken from rivers and streams during the driest time of year.

"You can have a great lawn without watering it," Lauenstein said. People need about only an inch of water a week for their lawn - and most of that is supplied by rain, he said.

Communities where water sources are considered stressed often enact lawn-watering restrictions between May 1 and Sept. 30. Last year, 76 communities had water restrictions - 24 of them voluntary.

Yet water conservationists say the state is back-tracking on conservation goals because it is allowing communities a long timetable to institute the 65-gallon limit.

The state also is permitting some communities to loosen restrictions on watering lawns - and not tying those rules to how a waterway is faring.

"It means that the management of our water resources is disconnected from the physical reality of our rivers," said Kerry Mackin, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, which has successfully sued the state to better protect that river from excessive water withdrawals.

Other water conservationists note there is little oversight of the 400 to 500 new private irrigation wells drilled each year in the state.

The state environmental agency's Burt denied there is any back-tracking. She said communities need time to phase in the 65-gallon goal, adding that new watering rules will allow many residents a more predictable schedule for watering their lawns. If a drought advisory is declared, she said, restrictions will be tightened. And, she said, the state is working with communities to improve oversight of private wells and understand their cumulative impact on water supplies.

Beth Daley can be reached at