Water Commissioners and Local Boards: Roles and Responsibilities for Drinking Water Compliance and Coordination

The purpose of this guide is to outline the specific state legal authorities granted to water commissioners, cities and towns, police, and boards of health who all play roles in ensuring the safety of our drinking water.

The Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), under Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) Chapter 111 section 160 and its Drinking Water Regulations 310 CMR 22.00, has the authority to regulate public water supplies (PWS) in the Commonwealth. MassDEP's authority to regulate PWS's is extended directly to the water commissioners. Water commissioners are the sole governing municipal body with the responsibility for ensuring that a water system has all the required technical, managerial and financial resources for complying with 310 CMR 22.00. This means providing all the necessary resources for sustaining the water supply system from the source to the tap in perpetuity.

1. Water Commissioner Authority:

This section provides authority to the board of water commissioners to manage, improve and control a waters and property taken, acquired, erected or constructed for a public water supply system.

This section provides for the election of water commissioners or the authorization of selectmen to act as such.

This section vests exclusive responsibility with the water commissioners or the selectmen authorized to act as such for source water quality protection "subject to all lawful by-laws and to such instructions, rules and regulations as the town may from time to time impose by its vote."

This section vests the powers and duties of police officers to protect source water quality in the cities and towns for which they are employed by the water board or board of water commissioners.

  • Source Water Protection

Water commissioners have authority under Massachusetts General Laws 111 sec. 173A and 173B to examine and protect water supplies and sources of supply and to take appropriate action to protect these. This includes watershed protection. Water commissioners must recognize this responsibility and provide whatever resources are required to operate the system in compliance with MassDEP regulations.

Thus, the water commissioners or their designees are directly responsible for taking action as required, to protect source water quality. They may also seek indirect assistance through local coordination with municipal boards to assure source water quality protection and preservation. Therefore, water commissioners should be in touch with their: (1) Selectmen, Town Meeting Representatives, and Planning Board on important issues related to source protection zoning bylaws/ordinances and subdivision rules and regulations; (2) Boards of Health on issues related to the control of threats from inappropriate land uses within their watershed through BOH regulations/bylaws/ordinances; and (3) Conservation Commission on issues related to controlling soil erosion from land alteration impacts to surface waters from parcels without vegetative cover.

2. The Law Pertaining to Powers and Responsibilities of Cities and Towns

  • Water Supply: Massachusetts General Laws c. 40: sec. 38-42
  • Collection of Water Rates: Massachusetts General Laws c. 40 sec. 42A-42K
  • Superintendent of water or sewer department: Massachusetts General Laws c. 41 sec. 69

    This section provides the selectmen, authorized under section twenty-one to act as water and sewer boards, water commissioners or sewer commissioners, the additional authority to appoint a suitable person to act as superintendent of the water or sewer department.
  • Pollution of water; damage to property; penalties: Massachusetts General Laws c. 40 sec. 39G 

    This section provides for forfeiture and payment to the town three times the amount of damages assessed on anyone "who willfully or wantonly corrupts, pollutes or diverts any of the waters taken or held under said sections thirty-nine A to thirty-nine E". This includes the protection and preservation of watershed lands as provided under section 39B which are purchased by the town (through its board of water commissioners, selectmen) for the purpose of protecting the purity of source water quality.

3. Coordination with Town Boards

  • Boards of Health (controlling existing land uses that threaten water supply sources) Massachusetts General Laws c. 111 sec. 122

    This section provides boards of health with general authority to examine, and to protect public health from nuisances and to establish regulations relative to the public health and safety relative thereto.
  • Town (controlling development of lands from inappropriate land uses) Massachusetts General Laws c. 40 sec. 21

    This section provides authority to cities and towns to make ordinances and bylaws which "they may judge most conducive to their welfare, and which shall be binding upon all inhabitants thereof and all persons within their limits." This general authority includes that necessary to develop the necessary by-laws or ordinances related to the control/prohibition of specific land uses which have been determined by DEP (refer to 310 CMR 22.00 - new source approval process) potentially to threaten drinking water sources.
  • Conservation Commissions (controlling runoff to surface water supplies and /or approval of work significant to pubic water supply within the wetlands jurisdiction) Massachusetts General Laws c. 131 sec. 40

4. For More Information

NEWWA guide: Basic Training for Drinking Water Board Members On-Line Course Reference Guide.  Topics covered include Roles & Responsibilities, Communications, Board Operations, Budgets, Planning, and Treatment & Distribution.  The on-line training modules that accompany this reference guide can be found on the NEWWA website.

For more information on how to develop the capacity of your drinking water system see the US EPA website: Building the Capacity of Drinking Water Systems.

Or contact MassDEP:

DWP email address: Program.Director-DWP@state.ma.us

Boston / Main Phone Number: 617-292-5770
Michael Maynard at 508-767-2735
Yvette DePeiza at 617-292-5857

WERO Contact: Mike McGrath at 413-755 - 2202
CERO Contact: Michael Maynard at 508-767-2735
NERO Contact: William Zahoruiko at 978-694 - 3232
SERO Contact: Michael Maynard at 508-767-2735


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