Smart Growth / Smart Energy Toolkit Modules - Water Resource Management

Learn about the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Water Resource Management module.


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.

The Problem

One of the state's biggest challenges is maintaining the right amount and quality of our water resources. Massachusetts receives about 44 inches of rainfall per year that fills our reservoirs and streams and sustains our aquifers. However, in dry years, the Commonwealth faces issues due to:

  •  Impervious surfaces, which prevent rainwater from replenishing aquifers
  • An increased demand for water supply and the transport of water and wastewater out of basin
  • Decreased streamflow and water supply
  • 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.

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. As growth continues, demand for water and the development of land critical to future water supplies, recreation and habitat will also continue to increase. 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: There are important reasons for communities to maximize the efficiency of their water supplies:

  • the impacts of insufficient water quantity
  • the need for better system operation and maintenance
  • increased cost savings
  • avoidance of expensive future system expansions or new source development 

Water quantity challenges can be addressed with the implementation of 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
  • 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.

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.

The State Revolving Fund provides low interest loans to communities for the repair of aging water and sewer infrastructure.

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, 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.

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. These are also known as Low Impact Development (LID)techniques. 

Water Demands: When planning for future development, communities must first ensure that there is enough water available locally to meet the increasing demand. 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. Important factors for communities in the planning phase include:

  • Consideration of the interactions between land and water are essential to environmental sustainability, wildlife habitat, and river flow
  • Determining appropriate sites for growth and protection (such as for future wells) when completing a Master or Open Space Plan
  • Modifying 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)
  • Considering acquiring recharge zones and potential well sites early before they are threatened by development
  • Using 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.

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
  • the Interbasin Transfer Act

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
  • 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
  • permit streamlining.

Sustainable water use and effective pollution control strategies require more active pursuit of sustainable development practices. 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.

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.