Water Permitting Reforms Move Forward

Water withdrawals—for drinking water, industry, golf course irrigation and other uses—have a tremendous influence on the health of rivers. The Neponset River is no exception, with more than 160,000 people drawing drinking water from wells connected to the river and its tributaries.

Much to their credit, two years ago, the Patrick Administration set its sights on a long-overdue reform of water withdrawal permitting in Massachusetts. Major water withdrawals are governed by the Water Management Act, a 30-year-old law that has been plagued by poor implementation, controversy, lawsuits, and numerous failed reform efforts over the years.

The law calls for establishing “Safe Yields” as a maximum limit on how much can be pumped from watersheds across the state, and directs the state to “balance” competing demands such as drinking water, industry and the preservation of recreation and healthy native fish populations. By its own admission, the state has failed at both these tasks over the years, with the result that more than 100 streams—including most of the Neponset Watershed—have water withdrawal levels that cause severe impacts to fish and aquatic ecosystems.

In November, the Administration issued its blueprint for the reforms known as the “Sustainable Water Management Initiative.” Final Framework Draft Regulations to implement the Framework are expected by summer. The environmental community was deeply disappointed that the Patrick Administration chose to define “Safe Yields” in a way that won’t do anything to protect stream health. This frustration runs deep because Safe Yield is the only hard and fast rule under the Water Management Act, and the Administration could have used it to guarantee that streams and rivers would never be subjected to damaging withdrawals.

Instead of using Safe Yield, the Administration has advanced a system of more flexible “Streamflow Criteria,” to balance the needs of streams with demands for water withdrawals. The Streamflow Criteria are based on groundbreaking scientific research, and incorporate a series of laudable goals such as ensuring that relatively healthy streams do not “backslide” to a less healthy category, and requiring “feasible improvement” for heavily impacted rivers like the Neponset.

Since last fall, Watershed Association Executive Director Ian Cooke has been serving as one of two environmental designees on a state committee trying to define exactly how the Streamflow Criteria would work. That means debating how to define and measure terms like “minimize impacts to the maximum extent feasible” and “mitigation commensurate with impact.” The Administration is under tremendous pressure to define these details in ways that will turn the laudable goals of the proposed Streamflow Criteria into meaningless platitudes.

Over the coming months, we will be pressing them instead to define Streamflow Criteria in a way that drives meaningful water conservation across the state, gets permit holders to draw their water from more sustainable sources, and encourages other steps to restore natural streamflows over time.

The Administration has opened an opportunity to make a real difference for rivers across the state, and we will be doing everything in our power over the coming months to persuade them to seize that opportunity.

For more information, contact Executive Director Ian Cooke at 781-575-0354 x305 or cooke@neponset.org.

Author: Ian Cooke, Executive Director, February 2013

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