Water Resource Management

In Brief: Water is a finite resource that needs to be managed to meet human needs as well as those of the natural environment. Our approaches to water management must ensure continued and sufficient quantity and quality of water for current and future human uses while maintaining ecological integrity.

This section of the Toolkit briefly discusses the various water resource problems and outlines how a community should approach its water resources both in the present and in the future. The section also highlights relevant state water policies.
The Problem
One of the state's biggest challenges is maintaining the condition of our water resources at levels sufficient to meet ecological and human demands. Massachusetts receives a significant amount of precipitation - the equivalent of 44 inches of rainfall per year - that fills our reservoirs and streams and sustains our aquifers. However, in dry years, particularly in the summer months, impervious surfaces, which effectively prevent rainwater from replenishing aquifers, combined with an increased demand for water supply and the transport of water and wastewater out of basin, can result in decreased streamflow and water supply as well as in impairments to water quality and aquatic habitat. Increased amount of impervious surfaces and decreased amount of recharge surfaces also result in higher peak flows, which can cause flooding, and greater intensity and frequency of low flows, which further impair water dependent ecology and put a strain on local water supplies.

Hydrologic cycle with and without development

In communities that desire to grow but rely on local water supplies, this increase in demand and reduction in groundwater recharge has resulted in water supply shortages and critically low streamflows. Alarming changes in fish populations are evident in many of the Commonwealth's rivers, such as the mainstem of the Charles and the Housatonic Rivers. In the stressed Ipswich River, the fish population is only 4 percent fluvial, or flow-dependent, (59 percent less than the expected level), while 93 percent of the fish in the Ipswich are lake and pond fish. Facing watering bans and increasing difficulty in developing new water supplies, communities are acutely aware of the issues associated with water supply shortages.

Another issue is stormwater runoff, widely recognized as one of the most significant sources of water pollution in the Commonwealth. When it rains, stormwater runoff washes over impervious surfaces (such as roads and roofs), increasing in temperature and carrying pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrogen, oil and grease, and pathogens either directly or via stormwater pipes into the ocean, rivers and lakes. Water quality impairment associated with polluted stormwater runoff can adversely affect fisheries, public health, and recreation.

In sum, a combination of rainfall variability, inefficient water use, high water demand, lack of stormwater recharge, and transportation of water and wastewater across watershed boundaries can result in the following impacts:

  • Lower water table
  • Lower streamflows
  • Water bans
  • Degraded water quality
  • Blocked fish passage and fish kills
  • Loss of wetlands
  • Degraded aesthetics
  • Impaired recreation
  • Insufficient quantity of water for smart growth and development

Over the past 20 years considerable land area has been developed, even as total housing starts been sufficient to meet housing needs. As growth continues, demand for water and the development of land critical to future water supplies, recreation and habitat will also continue to increase. To ensure adequate drinking water supplies for new growth and avoid overextending the state's natural resources, there are a number of tools and practices that municipalities can adopt to reduce impacts to water quantity and quality. These tools include appropriate planning and effective management of resources and infrastructure.

A community should first ensure current water use is as efficient as possible, with least amount of waste, and that its infrastructure is well-maintained. To facilitate this, a community should pay attention to and implement the following:

Water Conservation: The impacts of insufficient water quantity, the need for better system operation and maintenance, increased cost savings, and avoidance of expensive future system expansions or new source development all make a strong case for water conservation and should compel a community to use water with maximum efficiency. Addressing quantity challenges requires the implementation of conservation efforts such as system-wide water audits and leak detection, 100% metering, reducing unaccounted-for-water to 10%, full-cost pricing, installing efficient water fixtures, reducing individual water use to 65 gallons per day, and limiting outdoor water use. The community should also address water use in the agricultural, industrial, commercial and institutional sectors and strive to achieve efficiencies by working with these entities within the community. The Massachusetts Water Resources Commission recently updated the Massachusetts Water Conservation Standards, (http://www.mass.gov/envir/mwrc/pdf/Conservation_Standards.pdf) which provide guidance to residential, public, commercial, industrial and agricultural water users.

Water and Sewer Infrastructure: Communities also need to re-engineer and better maintain their sewer systems. Existing infrastructure often transports wastewater and stormwater away from where it is generated instead of letting it infiltrate locally. Transporting dirty water far from its source made sense historically, but today, with significant improvements in wastewater and stormwater treatment techniques and standards attainable treatment levels often make the water available for reuse or recharge. This eliminates the need for costly sewer conveyance infrastructure and allows for the replenishment of the natural stream flows and aquifers in the basin or sub-basin.

Communities also need to make improvements to their aging and often leaky water supply, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure. Water supply infrastructure can leak potable water into the ground via cracks in the pipes, wasting water that would otherwise be sent to users. Leaking sewer infrastructure takes in groundwater and conveys it to wastewater treatment plants resulting in increased treatment flow and associated costs, as well as a loss of baseflow to rivers and streams.

A community should avail of every opportunity to tighten its existing infrastructure and to ensure that any new infrastructure that is installed follows the smart growth principles and keeps water local. The State Revolving Fund provides low interest loans to communities for the repair of aging water and sewer infrastructure. The Water Conservation Standards provide guidance to communities on leak detection, water audits and metering. In addition, in the context of the state's Wastewater Reuse and Recharge Policy, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has convened a group of technical and policy experts to help develop wastewater reuse regulations.

Water Offsets and Banks: Many other new tools exist that provide local communities with the opportunity to be efficient, use less water, and maximize the use of current supplies. These include water offsets for new demands and establishing water banks. The Water Conservation Standards provide an introduction to water banking, which can be designed to offset water use and mitigate environmental impact.

Wastewater Reuse: Treated wastewater can be an excellent source of water for many non-potable uses. It can also be discharged into the ground, fill up depleting aquifers and provide badly needed baseflow. This Toolkit includes a section on alternative wastewater treatment, and the MassDEP is developing draft reuse regulations.

Stormwater Recharge: Traditional development patterns allow stormwater to travel across roads, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces into sewers and detention areas far away from where it fell as rainwater. Techniques to keep stormwater local and prevent it from becoming contaminated are available, including local infiltration using vegetated areas and rain gardens. MassDEP recently worked with an Advisory Committee and a larger group of stakeholders to promote increased stormwater recharge, low impact development techniques, the removal of illicit discharges to stormwater management systems, and improved operation and maintenance of stormwater systems. This effort has led to proposed changes to the Stormwater Management Standards and should result in the incorporation of these standards into the regulations. The Smart Growth Toolkit also includes information on rain gardens, vegetated swales, and other recharge techniques in the Toolkit section on Low Impact Development.

A community, when planning for growth and new development must first ensure that there is enough water available locally to meet the increasing demand. This additional demand can be satisfied through water savings achieved through some of the means listed above. Once all the water saving options have been exhausted, the community can pursue traditional water supply options such as a new well, new storage capacity, or an interbasin transfer.

Growth without good planning affects both the capacity of our water bodies to assimilate stormwater pollution and the availability of groundwater as drinking water and baseflow to our rivers and streams. Consideration of the interactions between land and water are essential to environmental sustainability, wildlife habitat, and river flow. Municipalities will want to determine appropriate sites for growth and protection (such as for future wells) when completing a Master or Open Space Plan. They will also want to modify their zoning regulations to encourage growth where it is most suited and add some level of protection to sensitive natural resources, such as potential well sites (open space residential design and transfer of development rights can both permanently protect land). In addition, communities should consider acquiring recharge zones and potential well sites early before they are threatened by development. Finally, a community should use its land use regulations to influence the type and pattern of development that occurs in the community in order to lessen the footprint and the impact that it has on local water recharge.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' (EOEEA) Smart Growth Technical Assistance and Drinking Water Supply Protection Grant Programs provide resources to assist communities in addressing the water resource impacts of sprawl and in acquisition of land necessary to protect current and future sources of drinking water, respectively. Finally, the LID section of this Toolkit includes a model LID bylaw that communities can customize to suit their unique circumstance.

Massachusetts Water Policy

In 2004, EOEEA launched the Massachusetts Water Policy, setting out a blueprint that cuts across all aspects of water policy and builds upon prior policy-setting activities, including the 1996 Water Supply Policy, the Interim Infiltration and Inflow Policy, the Wetlands Protection Act, the Rivers Protection Act, the Stormwater Management Policy, the Water Management Act, and the Interbasin Transfer Act. Many of the initiatives highlighted above are aspects of the Water Policy.

Water resource management principles of the Massachusetts Water Policy are:

  • Keep water local and live within municipal water budgets by addressing issues from a watershed perspective;
  • Protect clean water and restore impaired waters;
  • Protect and restore fish and wildlife habitat; and
  • Promote development strategies consistent with sustainable water resource management.

The Water Policy recommendations include development and refinement of planning tools and strategies to promote efficient use of water, measures to promote proper infrastructure maintenance, wastewater reuse and recharge, stormwater recharge, water supply development, resource protection and restoration strategies, and permit streamlining. Sustainable water use and effective pollution control strategies (such as addressing non-point source pollution) require more active pursuit of sustainable development practices - in essence, protection of critical resource areas, targeted resource restoration, higher-density growth, and more up-to-date designs and landscaping. These strategies are important as areas of the state undergoing heavy development in the coming years are faced with significant water resource, habitat, and dam issues.

Recognizing that current utilization patterns of the Commonwealth's water resources are frequently not sustainable and that the Commonwealth's economic growth and quality of life depend on a sustainable water supply, a key Water Policy goal is a more effective partnership with municipalities. Working with localities, the policy includes recommendations on planning and design innovations, fix-it-first strategies to encourage compact development and the revitalization of cities and towns, and proactive protection of future water supplies and critical water resources.

The Massachusetts Water Policy supports the Federal Clean Water Act mandate that each state maintain, safeguard and restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of its waters. The Water Policy underscores the significance of natural hydrologic cycles, establishes a method to prioritize watersheds in need of restoration, and better integrates science into resource management decisions.

The Massachusetts Water Policy can be found at http://www.mass.gov/envir/wptf/default.htm.