The Mass Rivers Alliance has made it a high priority to keep enough water in our rivers and streams. In May of 2010, river advocates endorsed a short list of statewide priorities, including streamflow and stormwater protection. Streamflow (also sometimes referred to as “water quantity”) refers to the amount of water in streams – as opposed to the cleanliness of that water, although the two issues are connected.
The amount of water in a stream at any given moment is a function of several factors, including some we can’t control – such as the weather – and some that we can, such as the amount of water withdrawn from the ground or diverted from streams into reservoirs to be used for water supply. In Massachusetts, the Water Management Act (WMA) controls the approximately 40 percent of water allocation that falls under the state’s permitting purview (either because it was allocated after the passage of the WMA, or because it’s withdrawn in a town that uses both permitted and registered sources. The other 60% of water use was grandfathered in when the WMA was passed in 1986).
With high summer water demand, portions of some Massachusetts rivers and streams dry up during drought years, with devastating consequences for aquatic wildlife. The upper Ipswich River is the best known example of this problem. You can get detailed information from the Ipswich River Watershed Association. Reservoirs, impounded lakes and ponds that store water also can reduce normal flows in rivers and streams.
To address existing reductions in streamflow and prevent future reductions, we need to take the following actions:
- Establish streamflow standards or criteria based on the best available science to guide water management decisions.
- Promote water conservation, efficient water use and water re-use.
- Promote local recharge of stormwater and wastewater to replenish aquifers.
How much water can we remove from a river before the river’s natural community of fish, aquatic insects, frogs, turtles, otters, birds and plants is diminished or lost? How much water does a river need? A serious threat to Massachusetts rivers, especially those located in the eastern part of the state, is the loss of streamflow due to water withdrawals. This problem is most visible in the summertime when river flows are naturally low but the demand for water, mostly for lawn watering, is greatest.
To answer the question – How much water do we need to keep in our rivers to have healthy rivers, in particular, healthy river fish communities? – the State Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Service have linked the impact of reduced August flows to river fish populations and species diversity across the state. You can visit the EOEEA’s website to download this study, entitled Factors Influencing MA Riverine Fish Assemblages.
Using this science, the state’s Sustainable Water Management Initiative is proposing new ways to allocate and manage water in Massachusetts. The main goal for this initiative is to keep rivers and streams from “backsliding,” or deteriorating from their current conditions – in other words, becoming drier than is healthy for the streams and aquatic life that depend on them. Achieving even this relatively modest goal would be a significant accomplishment, as there are currently no protections in place to prevent this. We continue to urge the state to use SWMI not just to keep things from getting worse, but to improve conditions in places where rivers don’t have enough water.
Specifically, the state has proposed a new Safe Yield methodology as defined in the state’s Water Management Act, 2) a set of stream flow criteria – currently none exist in either in the Water Management Act or the state’s Surface Water Quality Standards), and 3) a stream categorization or classification system based on current conditions of the state’s rivers and streams. You can follow the progress of the Sustainable Water Initiative by clicking the link to the EOEEA’s website (where you will find many SWMI documents – the “SWMI Initiative – Final Framework” section will take you to the latest proposal.) We also post occasional updates to our “SWMI blog” on this website.
MassDEP is currently finishing up several pilot studies of the proposed new permitting policy, where it put four different municipal water suppliers through mock permitting exercises. The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance participated in a stakeholders’ committee for the pilots, and brought in the watershed groups in these areas (watersheds were the Ipswich, Charles, Neponset, Blackstone, Assabet, and Connecticut) to provide information to the state’s consultants and help review pilot results. The agency expects to issue draft regulations sometime this spring (2013).