WE CAN’T have climate action without drought action.
Massachusetts is appropriately regarded as a leader when it comes to climate change and environmental policy. Just this month the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a historic bill that will keep the Commonwealth at the forefront of reducing carbon emissions, deploying renewable energy, and lowering our dependence on fossil fuels. We applaud this bold step but note that the effects of climate change are already here, and when it comes to our vital water resources, we are not doing enough to protect them.
The Commonwealth has a long history of bold action on water. In the last few decades, we have seen the remarkable cleanup of Boston Harbor, and drastic improvements in water quality in rivers, lakes, and ponds around the state. We are investing millions of dollars in protecting land and taking down dams to restore habitat for wildlife and native fish. We are home to the Quabbin Reservoir, one of the only public water supplies in the country to receive a filtration waiver from the US Environmental Protection Agency due to the natural buffer provided by extensive conservation lands around the reservoir and the resulting exceptionally clean – and delicious! – water.
All of this could be at risk though if we fail to seriously reconsider the way we regulate water in our changing climate, something the current drought is making abundantly clear.
A drought is more than the inconvenience of a brown lawn. Droughts have serious and permanent ecological impacts on some of the most fragile aquatic species, as well as disproportionate impacts on people who are already bearing the brunt of climate change impacts. As conditions become more dry, we see greater impacts on agricultural communities, rural residents with private wells, and urban residents who are already dealing with extreme heat, air pollution, and lack of access to green space.
As the summer comes to a close and we look out at a gubernatorial election and new legislative session, there are three things that the next administration and Legislature should commit to getting done if we are serious about protecting our most vital natural resource, water.
Pass the “Drought Bill.” This legislation would codify the work of the drought management task force, and provide the state with the necessary authority to impose water conservation measures before a drought becomes an emergency. It will also allow the state to respond to conditions at a regional scale—reflecting the way watersheds actually function—instead of relying on a patchwork of requirements in local water withdrawal permits that result in inequities from one community to another.
Ensure that efforts currently underway to amend the Water Management Act regulations to allow the Department of Environmental Protection to put water conservation conditions on historical water withdrawal “registrations” held by certain cities and towns during times of drought are successful. These registrations, which currently allow for water use without restriction, are further exacerbating the impacts of drought conditions. The authority to impose water conservation requirements on registrations has been given to the Department of Environmental Protection by the legislature and upheld by the state Supreme Judicial Court. These regulatory amendments would put each city and town on equal footing to do its part to mitigate the impacts of severe droughts.
Cities and towns should prioritize low-impact development approaches that allow natural features, including water cycles, to function properly. This provides natural resilience to drought, flooding, heat, and other climate change impacts. Other strategies include reducing impervious cover (e.g. parking lots), maximizing water conservation and reuse, and employing green stormwater infrastructure, like rain gardens, to reduce flooding, maximize groundwater recharge, and filter pollutants.
While this drought will hopefully pass, state leaders shouldn’t wait for the next one to take these much needed actions to protect our communities, natural environment, and water supplies. If we wait too long, we may find that it is too late.
Emily Norton is executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association and Daniel Sieger is a former senior Massachusetts environmental official under two governors, most recently serving as undersecretary of environmental affairs in the Baker administration until 2020. Sieger is a member of the board of directors of the Charles River Watershed Association.