By Beth Daley
Governor Deval Patrick announced a truce with environmental groups late today in a battle over how to protect the state's 11,000 miles of rivers and streams from being drawn down too low by mounting development pressures.
Last month, four conservation groups abruptly resigned from a state waterway advisory panel, alleging that a new state policy removed ecological considerations from decisions about how much water could be removed from river basins for industry, agriculture, lawn watering, and other household uses. The organizations said the policy could allow some waterways to run dry.
State officials disagreed, saying that the policy would instead help waterways and that environmental concerns would still be weighed, even if they weren't specifically detailed.
Late today, however, Patrick and representatives of the Conservation Law Foundation, Charles River Watershed Association, Ipswich River Watershed Association and Clean Water Action said that they had agreed to work together to develop a new water-withdrawal policy and that the groups would rejoin the advisory panel.
"I am pleased to announce these important voices are back at the table participating,'' said Patrick in a conference call with reporters and the environmental representatives. "We share common goals ... for Massachusetts to lead in water conservation and water management."
A statement issued by the state made clear that environmental groups persuaded state officials to their way of thinking. The state agreed to suspend the controversial policy and meet regularly with the groups to come up with a new one that explicitly has environmental protections built in.
At issue is a cornerstone of the 1986 Water Management Act -- a requirement that the state determine the “safe yield” of river basins. That was long considered by state officials and environmentalists as the amount of water that can safely be taken from a waterway during a drought while protecting fish and other river life. The state spent years struggling, and failing, to come up with a formula to calculate safe-yield amounts for each of the state's 27 watershed basins.
Faced with lawsuits over the safe yield definition -- and with growing stresses on the state’s waterways -- state environmental officials last month issued a formal definition, describing safe yield as the amount of water present during a drought year in each of the state’s 27 watershed basins.
Environmental groups were outraged, saying the policy removed ecological criteria that served as a safety net for rivers. They said the new water policy could allow an additional 22 million gallons to be taken from the Ipswich River, for example. The river, largely considered to be the most stressed in the state, has suffered from fish kills in the past because the state allowed it to be pumped dry. They also accused the state of failing to consult with the water management advisory group that they sat on.
State officials said the new policy would help set Massachusetts on a path to sustainable water withdrawals and that the state couldn't consult the groups because they were the very ones suing the state over the safe yield issue.
Now, state officials agree that safe yield will include the ecological health of river systems. The statement says that they will work with the environmental groups to develop interim safe yield definitions and use their “best efforts” to finalize a safe yield decision by Oct. 31, 2010, so they could be applied to water withdrawal permit renewals.
Environmental groups said they were pleased to have met with Patrick and were eager to work toward a safe yield goal.
"This agreement allows us to move forward," said Bob Zimmerman of the Charles River Watershed Association.
With about 4 feet of rainfall a year, Massachusetts has long escaped the water woes so visible in the Western United States. The enormous Quabbin Reservoir provides ample water for drinking, showering, and lawn watering to dozens of communities in Eastern and Central Massachusetts and has so much left over its managers want to sell it. Yet suburban and rural communities outside that system have to draw water from rivers and wells, some from sources that are becoming increasingly stressed. Today, 160 rivers and streams already suffer from low flows or water levels.
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