SWMI blog

The Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI) is the Massachusetts Environmental Agencies’  multi-stakeholder process, begun in January 2010, to improve the way the state manages its water allocations.

With the new year, we’re trying a new approach to keep you informed.  Instead of emailing “SWMI updates, ” with attached documents, we’ll be posting the updates here on our website, with links to documents/websites.  We’ll continue to send out emails letting you know when there’s a new update.  You can scroll down to read all the updates.  (For more information, scheduled meeting times and places, documents, agendas, and minutes of meetings, please refer to EOEEA’s website).

SWMI Update November 2012

It’s been a long time since we’ve provided an update on the Sustainable Water Management Initiative to the environmental community.  You will recall that this EOEEA initiative, begun in early 2010, is a long-overdue attempt to provide more balance to our Water Management Act water permitting by linking new water allocation requests to stream flow in donor basins.  Here’s the latest news.

The agencies are moving forward on SWMI:  Phase 1 of the four SWMI pilots is complete and Phase 2 has begun.  Governor Patrick has asked the EOEEA to issue draft regulations for SWMI early next year.  The agency plans to issue a “final framework” later this fall, along with a response to the comments submitted this spring on the Draft SWMI framework.  The agency also plans to make available $1.6M in environmental bond funds in FY14 for municipals to plan for and implement SWMI.

What did the pilots tell us?  It is likely that the new water permitting rules will indeed drive conservation.  This is both because conservation requirements will be incorporated into the rules, and because towns may choose to conserve as much water as possible to avoid triggering SWMI “tiered review,” with the requirement to mitigate new withdrawals.  This is certainly a positive outcome for the environment.  On the other hand, we found many of the “mitigation” activities proposed by the consultants problematic, in that they wouldn’t actually improve streamflow (among other issues).  We’re hoping the state will get this right in its next iteration, and have provided them with a detailed  Pilot comment letter with our suggestions.

For those who are interested, more detail:

Pilots.  In May and June, the state’s consultants (CEI and Tighe & Bond) put communities in four different areas through Phase 1 of a mock Water Management Act permitting process as envisioned under the draft SWMI framework issued in early spring (EOEEA SWMI page).  The pilots are in the Neponset/Charles, Blackstone/Assabet, Ipswich, and Connecticut River Watersheds (Dedham/Westwood, Shrewsbury, Danvers/Middleton, and Amherst).  These areas were selected because they represent a variety of different conditions, and because the towns were amenable to participating in the pilots.

The consultants’ report was completed by June 30 on this first phase of the process.  Ian Cooke (Neponset River Watershed Association) and Julia Blatt from the Mass Rivers Alliance serve as the only two environmental representatives on a stakeholders committee for the pilots; DEP provided the report to us on September 10, several weeks after it was reviewed by the towns.

Watershed colleagues working in the pilot areas helped us review this lengthy report, and their suggestions were extremely helpful.  We then weighed in at a stakeholders’ meeting last week, and again at a meeting with Commissioners Kimmell and Griffin and Secretary Sullivan.  We submitted a comment letter on November 1 to Commissioner Kimmell.  In general, we felt that the pilots offered a useful dry run for SWMI and highlighted some of the remaining issues to be resolved.  Because the SWMI Framework lacks some important detail about how to apply the streamflow criteria to actual permits, the consultants were simultaneously tasked with making recommendations for individual permits and with filling in some of the holes in the SWMI framework.

Governor’s Letter.  MA Water Works sent a letter to the governor this summer that was sharply critical of SWMI.  To counter this message, the Alliance drafted a Letter to Governor Patrick urging the governor to encourage the agency to keep working.  The letter supported the stated goals of SWMI, but did not endorse the draft framework.  The letter was signed by 34 organizations and delivered in early September.

Science review.  You may recall that in response to the water suppliers’ challenges to the “SWMI science” (the USGS report on the effect of stream flow and impervious cover on fish populations), the DEP asked two independent expert reviewers, one an academic, and one a Canadian government scientist, to review the USGS report and assess 1) the report’s scientific validity, 2) the appropriateness of the report as a basis for regulatory policy, and 3) the merits of a set of challenges posed by the water suppliers’ consultant, TRC.

The DEP has received these reports and, while one of the reviewers suggests some additional analysis, the two experts strongly support the USGS report and the general concept of limiting water withdrawals to protect stream flow – and fluvial fish.  The state plans to make these reports public simultaneously with the Final Framework and Responses to Comments.

What’s ahead:  In addition to the products planned for release (Final Framework, Responses to Comments, scientists’ reviews) mentioned above, we can expect to see results from Phase 2 of the pilot study later this fall, scheduled for completion by November 30th. The agencies plan to issue draft SWMI regulations under the Water Management Act for public review in early 2013.

SWMI Update June 2012

The Sustainable Water Management Initiative continues to move (slowly) forward…  The Mass Rivers Alliance’s Julia Blatt, along with Ian Cooke of the Neponset River Watershed Association, are participating on the Pilot Oversight Committee (which also includes two water supplier representatives and staff from EOEEA, DEP, DCR, and DFG). The state’s consultants are currently scrambling to collect information on the water supply systems and hydrologic conditions of the four pilot areas, and have set up meetings with the municipalities and watershed groups in these areas.  They have been asked to submit draft reports by the end of FY12 (yes, that’s June 30).

Here is a May update from Kathy Baskin, EOEEA’s Director of Water Policy:

EEA and its agencies are grateful for the comments received from many of our stakeholders on the MA Sustainable Water Management Initiative.  We are reviewing those comments now and expect that they will inform the development of the final SWMI Framework and the accompanying Water Management Act regulations.

In the meantime, the Pilot Project is underway.  Four water suppliers have been selected as pilots:  Amherst, Danvers-Middleton, Dedham-Westwood, and Shrewsbury.  These systems represent a range of conditions, including:  varying impacts to flow levels/biological categories, both groundwater and surface water supplies, single and multi-basin systems, a system augmented with water from the MWRA, and municipal versus district systems.  The team of Comprehensive Environmental, Inc. and Tighe & Bond was selected to be the project’s contractor.  DFG’s Division of Ecological Restoration, with DEP funding assistance, is supporting river restoration and monitoring in Pilot Communities.  Projects include the removal of the Curtis Pond Dam in the Ipswich River Basin, monitoring to support restoration actions in Pelham and Amherst, and the development of feasibility studies for multiple dam and culvert removals in the Pilot Communities and their watersheds.

DEP and DCR have also been working with a contractor to improve data management abilities to better assist with the permitting process.  The Access databases that DEP uses during the regulatory process are being improved.  DEP is also streamlining its ability to provide information from annual statistical reports to DCR for use in developing water need forecasts.

We expect to prepare and disseminate a final framework this summer.  The final framework will guide us as we prepare draft regulations, which we hope to do by the end of the year.  These regulations will take into account information derived from the Pilot Projects, and will be subject to full public review and comment.

SWMI Update April 2012

Against the backdrop of an unusual spring drought, the Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI) is continuing to move ahead.  The dry weather and very low streams highlight the importance of curbing excessive, non-essential water use in order to sustain both our streams and our public water supplies.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has posted all the comment letters it has received on the draft SWMI framework.  You can click on this link to read the framework and the letters.  The environmental community did a terrific job of analyzing this proposal and responding thoughtfully and comprehensively to it; let’s hope our comments will be reflected in the draft regulations.

What’s next?  The DEP has hired Tighe and Bond (an engineering firm) to conduct four pilot tests of the proposed SWMI policies in the following communities:   Amherst (Connecticut watershed), Danvers/Middleborough (Ipswich watershed), Dedham/Westwood (Neponset watershed), Shrewsbury (Blackstone, wastewater discharges to Assabet). The agency hopes to complete some of the work on the pilots by the end of FY12, and finish the work by the end of the calendar year.   DEP also plans to simultaneously draft regulations for the new permitting process under the Water Management Act, which should be out for review by the end of this year.

The Mass Water Works Association’s and Mass Municipal Association’s take on SWMI is very different from that of the environmental community (their comments are posted on the website as well).  Relying on a consultant’s report (authored by Charlie Cooper, of TRC), MWWA has been questioning the peer-reviewed USGS study Factors Influencing Massachusetts Riverine Fish Assemblages on which the streamflow criteria are based.  The DEP has responded by asking outside experts to review the TRC report.

We hope the state’s environmental agencies will stand by the very solid science that shows, in effect, that the more water is removed from a stream, the worse it is for the fish, and continue to work with all stakeholders for more sustainable water management in Massachusetts.

SWMI Update January 2012

For two years, state staff, environmental advocates, and water suppliers have wrestled with the question, “how much water should we leave in streams to keep them healthy – and how should this work under the state’s Water Management Act, the statute that regulates water allocation in Massachusetts?  After a seven-month hiatus, the state’s environmental agencies are reconvening the Sustainable Water Management committees to work on some remaining technical issues (with the technical subcommittee, on 1/17) and review the draft framework document (to be presented to the advisory committee on 2/3).  These meetings are open to the public – see “upcoming events” on our website for times and locations.

SWMI Update June 2011


Safe Yield

The state has been silent on the Safe Yield issue since October 2010.  On April 29, 2011 the Mass Rivers Alliance submitted a Safe Yield Proposal to the state that was prepared in consultation with several environmental organizations.  This proposal, while similar to previous proposals advanced by river advocates, lays out how Safe Yield and streamflow criteria should be integrated and applied so that water allocations made under the Water Management Act do not eliminate existing and designated uses of the Commonwealth’s waters – uses such as support of aquatic life, protected by the state’s surface water quality standards and the federal Clean Water Act.  To date, the state has not responded to the proposal.

Streamflow Criteria

The state presented draft streamflow criteria to the SWMI Committees beginning last fall (2010) and most recently in March 2011.  These draft criteria are presented in a Streamflow Table.  The Mass Rivers Alliance, The Nature Conservancy and other groups have recommended that the state also develop a “low flow” or “no increase in zero flow days” criterion to address low flow conditions where fish are most vulnerable.  To date, the state has not responded to this recommendation.

Streamflow Criteria – water supply metric

In addition, the state has been trying to develop a separate metric for quantifying the impact of seasonal or monthly withdrawals from surface water reservoirs – what they call the “water supply metric”.  Why? USGS and the state have calculated the degree or percent of existing flow alteration on a scale of 1-5, referred to as August Median Flow Levels (FL), in roughly 1,400 of the Commonwealth’s delineated subbasins.  (Please note that not all areas of the state could be delineated because of hydrologic characteristics; for example, much of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod are not delineated into subbasins.) However, these August median flow level determinations account for the impacts of groundwater withdrawals and withdrawals from streams, but not water withdrawn from surface water reservoirs, which are significant.  Therefore, the true extent of flow alteration, particularly in the summer months, will likely be greater in subbasins where reservoir withdrawals occur.  The state initially considered three methods and has recently chosen to develop what they call “Method 3 – August reservoir inflow reduction” where for any public water supply surface water reservoir, you calculate the volume of water that flows into the reservoir during August and subtract it from current estimated August flow depletion or surcharge for that subbasin. You then subtract that August inflow from downstream subbasins.  This method assumes August flows into the reservoirs do not flow downstream in August but instead remain in the reservoir.  Click on Water Supply Metric to view the state’s most recent presentation on the topic.

Proposed Tiers of WMA Permit Review & Mitigation Measures

Since February 2011, the state has focused most of its attention on development of a 3-tiered approach to WMA permit reviews and mitigation. Water Management Act permitting is where the rubber meets the road in SWMI, so it makes sense to explore, sooner rather than later, how permitting should proceed in light of new streamflow science and guidance.  Click on Tiers of Permit Review Handout to view the proposed review tiers and mitigation.

Under the state’s proposed system, the Tiers of Permit Review and associated mitigation requirements would be determined largely by how much water the WMA permittee is seeking.  In our view, a major weakness of the state’s current proposal is that it makes no mention of streamflow criteria. (We hope to see this changed in the next iteration of this proposal).

The three Permit Review Tiers are summarized below:

Tier 1 Review – For renewal of existing permits where no increased water withdrawal above “baseline” is requested.  “Baseline” is defined as the average volume of water actually withdrawn in 2003-2005, 2005, or the registered volume, whichever is highest.  Tier 1 reviews would apply to all subbasins, even subbasins with severe flow depletion or surcharge.  For mitigation, Tier 1 would require compliance with the standard permit conditions #1-8.  See WMA Standards Permit Conditions.

Tier 2 Review – For permit renewals or applications for new permits requesting a withdrawal volume that meets all of the following conditions:

  • The proposal withdrawal volume is equal to or less than 5% of near-natural August median flow in the affected subbasin; and,
  • The increased withdrawal would not change the subbasin’s Biological Category or Flow Level. (See Streamflow Criteria Table)


Tier 2 reviews would apply only to subbasins with existing August Flow Levels 1, 2 and 3, subbasins with minimal to moderate degrees of streamflow depletion or surcharge.  Tier 2 mitigation would require compliance with standard permit conditions #1-8, and if cold water fisheries are present, or the withdrawal is located in a Biological Category 1 subbasin, applicants would be required to  consult with state agencies and implement appropriate mitigation following the first exceedence of the “baseline” water volume.

Tier 3 Review – For permit renewals or applications for new permits that would:

  • Withdraw greater than 5% of the near-natural August median flow; or,
  • Cause a change in the Biological Category or Flow Level of the donor subbasin. (See Streamflow Criteria Table)

For mitigation, Tier 3 would require applicants to conduct alternatives analysis and demonstrate that there are no feasible alternatives.  If cold-water fisheries are present, or the withdrawal is located in a Biological Category 1 subbasin, the applicant would  also be required to consult with the appropriate agencies.  Tier 3 permits would also require compliance with the standard permit conditions #1-8. Tier 3 reviews would apply to all subbasins, even subbasins with severe flow depletion or surcharge.  The Tier 3 review process could allow backsliding.


Next Steps?

Currently, no additional SWMI Advisory or Technical Subcommittee Meetings are scheduled.  The state is apparently hoping to wrap up the process in the fall.  The EOEEA posts the Advisory and Technical Subcommitee’s meeting schedules on its SWMI website.

What is missing from SWMI?

1) New Safe Yield methodology

2) Determination of near-natural August median streamflows for undelineated portions of MA (those areas not included in 1,400 subbasins).

3) Completion and adoption of streamflow criteria

4) Incorporation of Stream Flow Criteria in the WMA permitting process

5) Establishment of measurable and enforceable mitigation goals

6) Commitment to prepare restoration plans for Flow Level 4 & 5 subbasins

SWMI Update – Feb. 15, 2011

The SWMI process has resumed after a winter holiday hiatus and we thought it was time to bring you an update.  The Technical Subcommittee met on Feb. 1st and the Advisory Committee on Feb. 8th. These meetings covered essentially the same topics –  streamflow goals, draft streamflow criteria, and draft ”no backsliding” recommendations.

Upcoming SWMI Meetings: The next Technical Subcommittee is scheduled for Tuesday, March 8, 2011 from 10:00 AM – 1:00P at 100 Cambridge St, 2nd Floor, Rooms C & D.  The next Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 22, 2011, from 1:00 PM – 3:30pm at 100 Cambridge St, 2nd Floor, Rooms C & D.  Always confirm these meetings dates the day before.  Check EEA’s website, this website, or email Kathy Baskin Kathleen.Baskin@state.ma.us or John Clarkeson John.Clarkeson@state.ma.us at EEA.

What are the expected “products” of SWMI and when will they be finalized? The anticipated products of SWMI will be stream flow criteria and a new method for calculating Safe Yield.  The last SWMI Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee meetings are now scheduled for June 2011, so we should expect to see some final SWMI products by then.  Following the conclusion of SWMI, state staff will recommend these SWMI “products” to the Mass Water Resources Commission and Water Management Act Advisory Commission for adoption in state policy and regulation.  These two groups may decide to further tweak stream flow criteria and safe yield, and these two steps could take several more months.

What is happening now with SWMI?


Progress – The state agencies have drafted quantitative, seasonally based streamflow criteria and proposed narrative streamflow criteria.  (For the moment, safe yield has been temporarily set aside).  See Table 1 in meeting handouts draft streamflow criteria.  In addition, the state seems committed to the general goal of “no backsliding,” with a particular emphasis on protecting and preserving high quality cold water streams in the least developed (Category 1) subbasins.  See Table 1, 2 and Table 3 in meeting handouts.

These draft stream flow criteria are based largely on pioneering work the state and USGS completed in 2010.  In particular, the state assessed the condition of fluvial (river) fish habitat in the state’s 1,395 subbasins and assigned each subbasin to one of five Biological Categories, where Category 1 is the least disturbed and 5 is the most degraded, using a model that accounts for the natural physical characteristics, current streamflow alteration, and percent of impervious cover of each subbasin.  Not surprisingly, the subbasins with the most degraded habitat are in the state’s urbanized areas. See the state’s provisional statewide Provisional Map of Mass Habitat Categories.

The state’s draft “no backsliding” recommendations would prohibit alterations of streamflow, whether depletions or surcharges, within Biological Category 1 subbasins, the subbasins with the most pristine fluvial fish habitat.  (See Provisional Map for location of Category 1 subbasins in the state.)  This recommendation would provide a high level of protection to most cold water streams and streams with high quality fluvial fish habitat.  In addition, the state’s “no backsliding” recommendations would prevent an alteration of streamflow that resulted in the downgrading of a subbasin to a less healthy Biological Category, for example, from a Category 3 to a 4.  However, some alteration of streamflow within specified ranges, called “flow levels”, established for each Biological Category, would be permitted.


Concerns – Restoration should be an explicit goal of SWMI. Although there has been progress in the SWMI process, presentations and comments made by state staff at the February meetings suggest that the state may be setting the bar too low with respect to its overall goal for SWMI.  In our view, “sustainable water management” does not merely mean, “not letting things get worse.”  As a member of the SWMI Advisory Committee observed on Feb. 8th, to be sustainable, a resource must be functional.  We will need to restore function to aquatic habitat in our degraded subbasins.   At present, the proposed statewide goal, presented in the Flow Criteria Conceptual Framework is, “To manage water resources for human and environmental needs in a sustainable manner by preventing further degradation, protecting current resources, and making improvements to stream flow and aquatic habitat where feasible.”  Restoration of impaired river and stream habitat should be added as an explicit stream flow goal.

Currently 72%, or 1,006 of the state’s 1,395 subbasins fall into Biological Categories 4 and 5, where stream and river habitat ranges from significantly to severely degraded.  See Provisional Map.  Yet the state’s draft narrative criteria and “no backsliding” recommendations would maintain, not reduce, a high degree of flow alteration in Biological Category 4 & 5 (the most degraded) subbasins except where improvements were deemed “feasible”.  The state has not yet defined and the SWMI Committees have not discussed what “feasible” and “improvement” means, or how they would be measured.

In addition, the state could permit new or increased water withdrawals and wastewater discharges in all but Category 1 subbasins, apparently without offsets and mitigation, as long as the increased flow alterations did not exceed the bounds of the flow levels in each Biological Category.  The allowable flow alteration could be as much as 10% of natural August median flow for Category 2, 4 and 5 subbasins, and 20% for Category 3 subbasins.  Moreover, the state has indicated that a process will be established that supersedes the “no backsliding” limits in the event that water is needed for “public health, safety, economic development or other Water Management Act considerations.”  The state has yet to provide information about the framework or process.


It’s complicated – the challenge of impervious cover. Among the 1,006 Category 4 and 5 subbasins, existing streamflow in 19% or 189 of the subbasins suffers severe flow alteration (greater than 35%).  Of these 189 subbasins, approximately 127 are flow-depleted – have reduced flows relative to natural August median flows, and 62 are flow-surcharged – have more flow than natural August median flows.  In 73% or 734 of the Category 4 and 5 subbasins, the percent of impervious cover exceeds 5.6%, a condition associated with significant degradation of stream habitats and a point at which (according to existing models) the amount of impervious cover largely determines the quality of fluvial fish habitat in the subbasin.  (Fluvial fish depend on flowing water for all or a portion of their lifecycle.)  Although the influence of flow alteration and impervious cover on stream habitat varies from subbasin to subbasin, nearly all subbasins are affected by both factors and both factors must be addressed and mitigated to restore habitat.  In addition, the potentially harmful effects of flow alteration less than 35% of August median flow and impervious cover less than 5.6% must also be considered.  Information about subbasin stream flow alteration and percent impervious cover comes from the on-line USGS report,Indicators of Streamflow Alteration, Habitat Fragmentation, Impervious Cover, and Water Quality for Massachusetts Stream Basins“.

A role for river advocates – finding solutions. The Alliance and our many partners on the SWMI Advisory and Technical Committees have been working closely with state agency staff, as have other stakeholders (primarily water utilities and their consultants) to find solutions to the SWMI challenges.  We have weighed in repeatedly and forcefully with our ideas and suggestions – as have many of you in the environmental community, and as have the other stakeholders as well.  The state agencies understand that we are seeking river restoration – healthier rivers in Massachusetts.

Much of what the state is seeking from us at this point, however, is practical advice about how to accomplish this.  We know some river subbasins are “overallocated,” in that more water is being given away than is healthy for rivers, and that other river basins are at risk of becoming overallocated with increased population growth and development.  How, then, can we protect and restore rivers without hampering growth – or worse – taking away the water our communities need?  And how do we restore rivers in areas where impervious cover is a large part of the problem?

Our suggestions thus far have included the following:

1. Encourage communities in over-allocated basins to switch to MWRA, if possible.  Help defray their costs by subsidizing the tie-in fee or requiring MWRA to lower this fee for communities in over-allocated basins.

2. Ratchet down on non-essential water use in the summer– hold communities to a stricter summertime standard than the 65/10 conservation standard, if necessary.

3. Encourage water utilities to raise their rates (to reflect the true environmental cost of supplying water); any excess revenue beyond the cost of supplying water to the community can be used to fund mitigation programs.

4. Mitigate and offset water withdrawals – If communities can’t do without the water, require mitigation and offsets of withdrawals that exceed Safe Yield or stream flow criteria.  Options include recharging stormwater and wastewaster, reducing infiltration of groundwater into sewer pipes, and disconnecting directly-connected impervious cover.

5.  Give communities a reasonable timeframe, up to but not exceeding the 20 year life of a Water Management Act Permit, to implement demand management, mitigation, and offsets.

Water suppliers have also suggested implementing an incentive program (called “Go with the Flow”) to help communities protect their rivers.

If you have other ideas about how to restore over-allocated subbasins, we would like to hear them.  Please send your ideas to us at juliablatt@massriversalliance.org and susanbeede@massriversalliance.org. We will provide EOEEA with a summary of the ideas we receive.

SWMI Update – Nov. 12, 2010

Hello River friends.  Here is the latest on the Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI) and an opportunity for you to weigh in at an important juncture (see the end of this email).

As you recall, SWMI is an EEA-led, participatory process to improve water allocation and strengthen river protection under the Water Management Act (WMA) and other state policies, laws, and regulations.   The SWMI committees (tech, advisory, and their spin-offs: tools, water supply metrics, etc.) have met frequently since January and are approaching decision points on 1) safe yield and 2) stream flow criteria and goals.  These two elements should work together as a package to improve stream protection.  To date EEA has focused more on Safe Yield than on stream flow criteria and goals, but on Tuesday (11/9/10), EEA presented specific stream flow criteria and goals to the SWMI Technical SubCommittee. To show how the criteria and goals would be implemented, EEA applied them to a subbasin in the Westfield River watershed.

To see the two presentations for yourself, go to the Nov. 9th meeting at http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=eoeeaterminal&L=5&L0=Home&L1=Air%2c+Water+%26+Climate+Change&L2=Preserving+Water+Resources&L3=Sustainable+Water+Management&L4=Sustainable+Water+Management+Technical+SubCommittee&sid=Eoeea&b=terminalcontent&f=eea_swm_tech_subcomm_resources&csid=Eoeea

While the state appears to be nearing a decision on each, they are both still under discussion.  Here’s our take…



We are not happy with the direction the state appears to be taking on safe yield.  Safe yield is the stopgap, bottom limit in the law that protects rivers from running dry or dangerously low during a drought.  Under the WMA, safe yield is “the maximum dependable withdrawals that can be made continuously from a water source including ground or surface water during a period of years in which the probable driest period or period of greatest water deficiency is likely to occur; provided, however, that such dependability is relative and is a function of storage and drought probability.”

A. In order to satisfy this legal definition and include a meaningful environmental component, we believe safe yields should be based on the water available during the most constrained period, the summer drought.   EEA is proposing to calculate Safe Yield using an annual average number that won’t protect aquatic life in rivers and streams during the summer and early fall, the period when natural stream flows are lowest and water demands are highest.

B. Second, we believe safe yields should be determined at the subwatershed or subbasin level – rather than just for major river basins.  Currently, a number of subwatersheds with no real world hydrological connections are lumped together for administrative purposes in fictitious basins such as the Boston Harbor and South Coastal Basins.  Hydrologically distinct watersheds must have their own Safe Yields.  This will help insure that headwater streams don’t run dry and that sustainable yields are truly sustainable.

The attached letter expands on these points.  It was sent by a group of SWMI participants including the Conservation Law Foundation, The Charles River Watershed Association, the Ipswich River Watershed Association, and the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.



Stream flow criteria and goals should provide an assessment of the amount of water, in each season, that each Massachusetts river needs to support a healthy aquatic ecosystem.  In practice these criteria and goals  will limit water allocation in each subbasin to an amount that can be safely withdrawn without harming rivers and streams.


We believe the streamflow criteria and goals are moving in the right direction, but have some concerns.   The criteria and goals should embody the following principles:


A. Rivers and streams with degraded flowing water (fluvial) habitat should be restored to a minimum level of health or biological “floor,” while high quality waters should be maintained and protected.  Existing habitat degradation should not be grandfathered or institutionalized.

B. Allocation of water by the state should be consistent with the state’s surface water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.  For example, water allocations by the state should not cause or contribute to violations of state surface water quality standards.  In addition, stream flow criteria should preserve the most limiting low flow condition at which surface water quality criteria are applied, usually the 7Q10 flow, in all rivers and streams with wastewater discharges.

C. In light of climate change and other uncertainties, a margin of safety should be incorporated into stream flow criteria and goals.



The agencies hope to reach closure on these two big issues before year-end and begin drafting new regulations.  There is also the possibility that the process will be extended into 2011.


The state’s environmental agencies have asked for input on the agencies’ 11/9/10 presentation on stream flow criteria and goals by Friday, November 19.  You can help by sending a letter to Associate DCR Commissioner Anne Carroll, by November 19th, with your response.  You may want to include or elaborate on the points in the STREAM FLOW CRITERIA AND GOALS section, above.

SWMI Update – Aug. 12, 2010

Safe Yield Update – Aug. 12, 2010
Early this summer the Alliance convened an ad hoc work group to develop a scientifically-based and environmentally protective method of calculating Safe Yield.  “Safe Yield” is a key statutory term in the Water Management Act, which governs large withdrawals, because it limits how much water the state can allocate in each of the state’s 27 major river basins.  The work group has met once a month since June to consider various methods and recently agreed to support a method developed by Nigel Pickering of the Charles River Watershed Association.  A big “thank you” to all who have served on this work group.

The proposed Safe Yield Method
Under the proposed method, the Safe Yield is the volume of water equal to 25% of the near-natural August median flow in a subbasin.  The HUC-10 geographic subscale is recommended for most areas (there are 74 in the state).  HUC-12, a finer scale, is recommended for coastal river basins such as the Jones, North and South Rivers.  The near-natural August median flow would be determined using a new USGS streamflow simulation tool – the Sustainable Yield Estimator – in most basins, and using groundwater studies in the Plymouth Carver Area and Cape Cod.  Most work group members agreed that 25% of near-natural August median flow is a sufficiently protective allocation based on the recently published Preliminary Fish and Flow Study, http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1139/ and related, ongoing stream categorization work by State Department of Fish and Game.  The Preliminary Fish and Flow Study shows that removing 25% of near-natural August median flow is associated with approximately a 30% decrease in the number of fluvial fish caught per hour of fish shocking (“fluvial” fish need flow for all or part of their lives).  The state’s Department of Fish and Game’s analysis suggests that decreases in the abundance of fluvial fish beyond 30% can result in large, harmful changes in the fluvial fish community, including the loss of sensitive fish species.  So we don’t want to reduce fluvial fish counts by more than 30%.

The Safe Yield method chosen by the work group is calculated as 25% of the near-natural August median for each subbasin.  However, this method also includes the concept of “safe allocation”, which is determined by adding actual wastewater and septic system returns to 25% of near-natural August median flow, so in reality, the amount of water that DEP could allocate would be 25% of near-natural August median flow, plus return flows from wastewater discharges and septic systems.

There are still a few details to be worked out.  Reservoir storage also needs to be added to the equation, but we are still figuring out how to do this. We also need to calculate the near-natural August median flows for the Merrimack and Connecticut mainstems because the SYE doesn’t do this.  In addition, the method needs to be indexed or otherwise tied to a drought condition.  Finally, we are also exploring ways to discount surface water discharges of wastewater, so as not to promote further surcharging if rivers flows with wastewater. This is because the Preliminary Fish and Flow Study also showed declines in fluvial fish counts with increasing wastewater surcharges, probably due to decreased water quality.
The biggest policy challenge in implementing this safe yield methodology is that it shows that a few basins in the state are overallocated. We are currently working on implementation ideas.

Representatives of the work group presented the proposed method to David Cash and other state staff on August 5th, and to a small group of water suppliers and their representatives on August 9th.  Both groups were asked to give feedback on the proposed Safe Yield method.  A follow-up meeting is scheduled with water suppliers and their representatives for Sept. 2nd. Nigel Pickering received informal comments from the state on August 10, but we have requested a formal public response to our proposal at a future Sustainable Water Management Initiative Meeting, perhaps the Sept. 14th Technical Subcommittee meeting.

SWMI Update – July 14, 2010

I hope you’re all finding ways to stay cool this summer.  Here’s a summary of the July 13th Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI) Technical Subcommittee meeting.

The two topics discussed at the meeting were 1) EEA’s proposed categorization system for MA river subbasins and 2) the draft USGS report, “Preliminary Assessment of Factors Influencing Riverine Fish Communities in Massachusetts”.
1.  Stream Categorization. The purpose of the proposed categorization system is to describe existing conditions in the state’s subbasins.  This is distinct from a classification system (such as was established under the Clean Water Act) that sets goals (i.e., for water quality or quantity).  The categorization system is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and compares measurable characteristics of each subbasin, such as the degree of stream flow alteration, percent of impervious surface cover, and the health of river fish populations, against what might be expected under a near natural or least altered condition.  Questions raised by the group included what least altered percent impervious cover number should be used to categorize subbasins? And should this baseline number be the same for all watersheds?  The proposed system ranks subbasins from 1-5, with 1 as most pristine, and 5 as most altered.  Under the proposed system, about 60% of the 900 plus subbasins assessed to date (out of 1,429) were deemed category 5′s.  (The Connecticut and Merrimack mainstem rivers, the Cape and Islands, and a few other areas were not analyzed, due to insufficient data).  Todd Richards, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Fish and Game walked the group through a powerpoint presentation on this topic.  A major concern is that EEA has not yet provided the Technical Subcommittee with a document that explains how and why the 5 categories were delineated.

The categorization system is an important part of developing stream flow criteria, as presumably stream flow goals will be connected in some way to these categories.  Using the technical work completed to date, SWMI will need to begin to wrestle with policy questions – How do we set stream flow goals for rivers and stream around the state?  How can we achieve these goals? Obviously, many of us feel strongly that we should protect our most pristine streams and restore degraded streams to health; there was some concern expressed about how the state will handle all the category 5 streams – (concern that there are many and they might be “written off”); one suggestion was that this category be further divided (5a, 5b, 5c).  However, the group has not yet tackled these questions (which are ostensibly the domain of the “advisory” committee; the technical subcommittee is supposed to restrict itself to technical, not policy matters.  In reality, the technical work has policy ramifications and the policy decisions are based on an understanding of complex technical data – so there isn’t always a bright line between the work of the two committees).

2. “Preliminary Assessment of Factors Influencing Riverine Fish Communities in Massachusetts.” MA DFG’s Todd Richards and USGS staff also fielded questions about the report, which was produced in cooperation with Mass DCR, Mass DEP, and Mass DFG.  The research goal of the report was to understand the effect of flow alteration, which includes both depletion and “surcharging” of streams (with wastewater), and impervious surface cover in subbasins (a proxy for other human-caused environmental alteration, pollution, etc.) on river fish populations.   To analyze the relationships among impervious surface, flow alteration, and fish species abundance and diversity, the researchers used the Sustainable Yield Estimator (to get estimated flows in the river basins), GIS (for impervious surface cover information and other physical characteristics of the river basins), and a database the DFG created from several years of stream sampling (for the fish data).

Among the findings in the study was that increasing impervious surface cover, flow depletion and surcharge in a subbasin is associated with declines in the abundance and diversity of most river fish communities.  This will be an extremely useful tool in protecting rivers.
For more information...as of today, Todd Richard’s presentation on subbasin categorizations isn’t posted on EOEEA’s website, nor has the study referenced above been released to the public (it is still in draft form).  We’re told the study will be released within a few weeks. However, for SWMI schedules and documents, the EOEEA site is still the best source of information.  (This takes you to the technical subcommittee’s site, you can navigate your way back up to the general SWMI pages for more information).

SWMI Update – May 25, 2010

It’s been a while since we provided an update on the Sustainable Water Resources Initiative (SWMI).  As you may remember, SWMI was launched in January by the state environmental agencies to strengthen protection of stream flow statewide.  This is a critically important issue for rivers, and a major state initiative.  Please read on for an update.

The MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) launched the Sustainable Water Resources Initiative (SWMI) in January 2010 to establish an environmentally protective method of calculating Safe Yield, as defined in the state’s Water Management Act (WMA), and to develop stream flow criteria for aquatic life to help guide water allocation under the WMA and, potentially, other state statutes.  EEA appointed an Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee comprised of water suppliers, environmentalists and other stakeholders to work with the three state agencies – MA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and MA Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to carry out the initiative.  Both committees have met at least monthly since January 2010.  The schedule for the process is driven in part by DEP’s stated intention to develop a new Safe Yield volume for the Ipswich River basin by August 31, 2010, when DEP must issue new Ipswich WMA permits.

While the time pressure has kept the process moving at a brisk pace, the tight timeframe has also made it difficult for the agencies to use important ongoing research by the USGS and the MA DFG, that examines the relationship between fish communities and altered streamflows.  The current focus of the research is fluvial fish – fish that require flowing water habitats for all or a portion of their lives – and how fluvial fish communities respond to alterations of natural August stream flows.

At the Technical Subcommittee meeting on May 11th, agency staff proposed a new Safe Yield methodology that looks disappointingly similar to what DEP proposed last fall (which was strongly opposed by the environmental community, and later rescinded by DEP).  The agencies did not attempt to incorporate any of the fisheries’ findings into this newest draft Safe Yield methodology.[1] It would make more sense for the agencies to first create stream flow criteria, or standards, and develop an approach to Safe Yield that is linked to those criteria.

In response to the new Safe Yield proposal, the Charles River Watershed Association recently proposed an alternative methodology, that ties Safe Yield to the predicted effects of reduced streamflows on fluvial fish populations.  This method is under review by agency staff, who appear to recognize that much more work needs to be done to incorporate environmental protection in Safe Yield.  They have stated that they are committed to working with the Technical and Advisory Committees to accomplish this.  Other issues related to Safe Yield include – should Safe Yields be calculated on a basinwide or subbasin scale, and can Safe Yields vary seasonally or must they be annual numbers?

The reason this matters is that safe yield is the only legal bulwark against over-allocation of the state’s water. It is not clear, by contrast, where stream flow criteria will fit in the WMA regulations, how they will be used in permitting, and how they will relate to Safe Yield.  The underlying issue is a general concern amongst all stakeholders – regulators, environmentalists and water suppliers – that if the agencies use the health of fluvial fish communities to help determine how much water can be withdrawn from a river basin or subbasin, the science may show that many of the state’s river basins or subbasins are already over-allocated.  The question then becomes one of policy: how do the agencies and stakeholders handle this situation?

This is a fascinating and important policy discussion. SWMI Advisory and Technical Subcommittee meetings are open to the public. Alliance’s Policy Director, Sue Beede, serves on SWMI’s Technical Advisory Committee.  Please feel free to call Sue at (857) 445-2028 or email her at susanbeede@massriversalliance.org with any comments or suggestions.

Meeting notes and PowerPoint presentations from all previous meetings are available on EEA’s website, along with other materials.

For more detailed information on Safe Yield, read on!

Safe Yield – a little background

Safe Yield is a key statutory term in the Water Management Act, which governs large withdrawals, because it limits how much water the state can allocate in each of the state’s 27 major river basins.  Historically, Safe Yield has been understood as the total volume of water – expressed in million gallons per day (mgd) that MA DEP can allocate by permits in each major river basin in relation to some minimum year-round streamflow figure thought to be protective of other instream uses—i.e., fisheries, recreation.  The legal definition of Safe Yield is:

“the maximum dependable withdrawals that can be made continuously from a water source including ground or surface water during a period of years in which a the probable driest period or period of greatest water deficiency is likely to occur; provided, however, that such dependability is relative and is a function of storage and drought probability.”

The Superior Court in the Town of Hamilton v. DEP case affirmed that “the concept of safe yield is fundamental to the proper management of a water source, taking into account the natural variability of streamflow and serves as the principle regulatory basis for determining the scope of permitted water withdrawals in a water source.” The Court ordered DEP to re-determine the safe yield of the Ipswich basis as soon as “reasonably possible.”  The Ipswich River experiences very low, and at times, no-flow conditions during the summer in large part due to water withdrawals by municipalities.

On October 8, 2009, DEP surprised the Water Management Act Advisory Committee with a new methodology for calculating Safe Yield.  It removed all environmental considerations from Safe Yield and would have allowed nearly two times the water currently allocated in the Ipswich to be withdrawn and over three times the amount in the Charles.

Environmentalists oppose DEP’s Oct. 8, 2009 Safe Yield determination

In protest, representatives of the Conservation Law Foundation, Charles River Watershed Association, Ipswich River Watershed Association and Clean Water Action resigned their appointments on the state’s Water Management Act Advisory Committee.  Many environmental organizations and private citizens sent emails and letters to Governor Patrick opposing DEP’s new interpretation of Safe Yield.  On November 3, DEP suspended the Safe Yield interpretation and determinations that were announced in October 8, 2009.  DEP clarified that its interpretation of the term safe yield under the Water Management Act included “environmental protection factors, including ecological health of river systems, as well as hydrologic factors.”  This clarification was filed with the Court in the Town of Hamilton case.  At the same time, the state also announced plans to work with stakeholders to quickly develop interim Safe Yield determinations that would be used in WMA permitting on a short term basis.  The state did this and an interim stop gap Safe Yield (ISY) determination was adopted on December 14, 2009.

DEP adopts and begins using Interim Safe Yield definition

DEP, in consultation with stakeholders, formulated the Interim Safe Yield as the existing registered and permitted allocation for a river basin, plus no more than one percent (1%) of the difference between volumes identified by DEP as Net Drought Baseflow + Reservoir Firm Yield and the Existing Allocation (registered plus permitted volumes).  It was acknowledged by DEP that the Interim Safe Yield did not include any environmental protection factor, but would allow DEP in the short-term to go forward and issue new WMA permits.

The Interim Safe Yield applies to all WMA permit renewals, but not one year interim permits, until a new Safe Yield methodology is developed with guidance from the SWMI Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee. The Interim Safe Yield was used in the recently issued Charles River Basin and Blackstone River Basin permits.  As mentioned previously, DEP intends to submit a new Safe Yield for the Ipswich River Basin by August 31, 2010 and calculate Safe Yields for all of the other river basins by November 3, 2010. The new “long term” safe yield methodology will be promulgated as a regulation under the Water Management Act with the intent that it be applicable to all new permits immediately, and all existing permits, including permits issued during the interim period, no later than the next five year review period for each permit.  In addition, DEP will include the new safe yield determination in each permit no later than the next five year review period.

SWMI Update – Jan. 7, 2010

Sustainable Water Management Initiative news. As you may recall, the EEA has launched a major initiative to improve the way Massachusetts manages water.  Called the Sustainable Water Management Initiative, the effort includes two stakeholder advisory committees (a technical subcommittee and a more policy-oriented group, called the advisory committee) who will help EEA develop stream flow criteria for rivers and safe yields for river basins, among other possible tasks, over the next 11 months.  The EOEA and its agencies (DEP, DCR, DFG) are working together to lead this process. We are hopeful that this process will lead to better protection for our rivers, beginning with the establishment of stream flow standards and safe yields that are based on environmental science.

Attached to this email is the packet of information handed out to participants at the two-hour kick-off meeting on Tuesday (1/5), including some information that will likely change, such as the mission statement and the straw framework.  There is also a summary of streamflow and aquatic research in MA from 2000 to the present.  This packet will give you a general idea of what the EEA hopes to accomplish, and who is involved.  The EEA expects to have these and other documents up on its website shortly, so you will be able to follow the group’s progress that way if you’d like. My purpose in sending this out today is keep you up to date on this news; please understand that because this group is trying to accomplish a lot in one year, it will be working quickly, so you should check the EEA website for the latest documents once they begin posting them there.

Schedule:  The EEA shared the following meeting dates (no locations or times) for the two committees:
Advisory: 2/23, 3/16, 4/27, 5/18, 6/22, 7/20, 8/17, 9/21, 10/19, 11/16, 12/21.
Technical: 1/19, 2/9, 3/9, 4/13, 5/11, 6/15, 7/13, 8/10, 9/14, 10/12, 11/9, 12/14.

Environmental Stakeholder Contacts. The attached information includes a list of participants and their bios.  Sue Beede, the Alliance’s Policy Director, is on the Technical Subcommittee, and she would be happy to hear from you if you have any questions or suggestions about the committees or their work:  617-850-1702 or susanbeede@massriversalliance.org.

Other committee members you can contact:
Kerry Mackin, ED, Ipswich River Watershed Association (Technical Subcommittee) 978-412-8200  kmackin@ipswichriver.org
Peter Shelley, VP, Conservation Law Foundation (Advisory Committee) 617.850.1754 pshelley@clf.org
Nancy Goodman, VP, Environmental League of Massachusetts (Advisory Committee): 617-742-2553 ngoodman@environmentalleague.org.
Margaret Van Deusen, Associate Dir., Charles River Watershed Association (Advisory Committee) 781-788-0007 x234 mvandeusen@crwa.org

EEA contacts (Kathy and Vandana are knowledgeable and accessible and can help you find the right person within the agencies to talk to, if need be):
Kathy Baskin, EEA Director of Water Policy 617-626-1012 kathleen.baskin@state.ma.us
Vandana Rao, EEA Assistant Director for Water Policy (617) 626-1248  Vandana.Rao@state.ma.us

Meeting notes. Finally – here are Sue’s notes from the meeting, to give you a flavor of the “discussion” (imagine 60 people in a sort of double-length conference room around a table that’s roughly a quarter of a mile in length…)  And one last reminder from me that these meetings are open to the public, so you are welcome to come to any of them.

David Cash, EEA Assistant Secretary and Chairman of the SWMI Advisory Committee, ran the meeting.  Seated at the conference table were the EEA Commissioners of DEP, DCR, and DFG.  Mr. Cash and the EEA Commissioners opened the meeting with introductory remarks, followed by introductions by all of the committee members and observers present.  Next, Jeff Davis, a facilitator from UMass Donahue Institute, described his role and ground rules for the meeting.  Mr. Cash reviewed the mission and roles of the Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee, followed by Linda Hutchins of DCR, who gave a PowerPoint presentation on water-related studies conducted by the Commonwealth over the last 10 years.

During the meeting, people were invited to ask clarifying questions and make suggestions.  The following questions were raised and suggestions offered:


-Why is the term “abundant water resources” used in the SWMI mission statement?

-Does the output of the Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee affect regulations, or is it strictly advisory? Is the output aimed at policy-making or is it a regulatory negotiation?

-How will the Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee make decisions? Voting? Consensus?

-How will the Technical Subcommittee present information to the Advisory Committee?


-Need to define what is meant by “sustainability” up front.

-Need to have a discussion of stream flow standards versus stream flow criteria?

- The committees need to address human water needs

-Technical Subcommittee should provide a glossary of terms to the Advisory Committee.

- Need to discuss “margin of safety” issues.

In closing, Mr. Cash stated that EEA would address the questions and suggestions raised, and distribute an outline of Advisory Committee and Technical Subcommittee tasks before the next Technical Subcommittee meeting on January 19th and the next Advisory Committee meeting on February 23rd.  EEA plans to post meeting notes and other related materials on their website.

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