BOSTON (SHNS) – With two significant droughts in the last five years, the Department of Environmental Protection held a hearing Wednesday on a proposed change that would restrict nonessential outdoor water use amid droughts and ratchet those up restrictions if conditions deteriorate.
MassDEP said adding a new condition to Water Management Act registrations to impose restrictions in regions where the governor or secretary of energy and environmental affairs declares a drought would better align water use guidelines with its drought management plan and “ensure adequate water for public health and safety and continued economic stability when water supplies are stressed by drought.”
The western part of the country has been dealing this year with extreme drought conditions and about 59 million people across nine western states are currently living in an area experiencing drought conditions. In Massachusetts, the outer and lower Cape are experiencing a moderate drought and about 15 percent of the state is abnormally dry, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week.
The change would affect 87 golf courses and 63 public water suppliers across Massachusetts that are regulated by MassDEP registrations rather than permits, less than 20 percent of the roughly 800 registered users under the Water Management Act. About 350 cranberry growers and other agricultural water users would be exempt, as would about 70 other registered water users where water use is core to their business, MassDEP said.
Nonessential water use includes things like watering a lawn, filling a swimming pool, using a hose to wash a car, and washing down driveways, parking lots and sidewalks. Essential uses — which would not be subject to the proposed new restriction — include health and safety purposes, uses that are the core function of a business, vegetable garden irrigation and watering livestock.
“We’ve defined nonessential outdoor water use and that really needs to be read carefully. This doesn’t mean you can’t water at all, it doesn’t mean you can’t water your gardens, it doesn’t mean you can’t hand water,” Duane LeVangie, MassDEP’s Water Management Act program chief, said. “But it is a definition you really need to read and appreciate the subtleties in it.”
When the governor or secretary declares a Level 1 or mild drought, affected water users in those regions would have to limit nonessential outdoor water use to one day per week either before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Under a Level 2 or significant drought, nonessential outdoor water use would be limited to hand-held hoses or watering cans only and only before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. A declaration of a Level 3 critical drought or a Level 4 emergency drought would lead to a ban on all nonessential outdoor water use, LeVangie said.
The new regulation would apply differently to golf courses, he said. Watering tee boxes and greens is considered an essential use, though MassDEP has yet to determine whether courses would have to scale back those activities in the event of a Level 4 emergency drought.
“Tees and greens need to be watered or you don’t have a golf course,” LeVangie said.
Under a Level 1 drought, courses would be limited to 80 percent of their typical water use for fairways, 50 percent for roughs and could not water landscape features or ornamentals unless the course uses those as part of an event venue. Roughs could not be watered if a Level 2 drought or worse is declared and fairways could be watered to 60 percent of normal levels. With a Level 3 drought declaration, fairways could be watered to 40 percent. No fairways could be watered under a Level 4 drought declaration.
LeVangie said the golf courses would have to submit a drought plan that spells out how they plan to achieve the reductions. He said the reduction could come from either the amount of time watering or the area that is watered, so a course that normally waters 100 acres of fairways for 100 minutes could either water the same area for 80 minutes or water just 80 acres of fairways for 100 minutes to meet the requirements under a Level 1 drought declaration.
The Green Industry Alliance, which includes arborists, landscape and lawn care professionals, golf course superintendents and irrigation industry representatives, offered a handful of changes it would like to see in proposal, including the elimination of the one-day-a-week provision proposed for Level 1 drought declarations.
“The one-size-fits-all approach, it’s really not adequate. Individual water systems are varied and those systems should be able to determine what works best for them. We think they should be able to develop their own conservation plans,” Stephen Boksanski, the group’s lobbyist, said. He added, “In today’s world, we have lots of technology, lots of innovation and a lot of that is at a user’s fingertips. We think these regs and the original ones in the drought management plan really could do a better job of using today’s technology and innovation, leveraging those tools to have better outcomes.”
Others who testified, including Heidi Ricci of Mass. Audubon and Kerry Snyder of the Neponset River Watershed Alliance, were in full support of MassDEP’s proposal and urged the agency to go even further with water conservation measures.
“The ultimate impact of the new requirements will be determined by drought frequency in Massachusetts moving forward,” the agency wrote in a summary of the proposed change. “Massachusetts has experienced two significant droughts in 2016 and 2020, which have driven the review and update of the Massachusetts Drought Management Plan and this regulatory amendment.”
Massachusetts experienced a serious drought in 2016 when at least a portion of the state was in a drought for 48 weeks from June 7, 2016 until May 2, 2017. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, the most intense period of that drought was the week of Sept. 13, 2016 when more than 52 percent of the state was categorized as being in an “extreme drought.”
The 2016-17 drought was blamed for contributing to wildfires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, smaller than usual apples, loss of crops, a shortage of cattle feed, and an elevated population of mosquitoes able to carry West Nile virus.
Last summer, four months of below-normal rainfall and consistently above normal temperatures led to very dry conditions in every region of Massachusetts. In August, the state declared a Level 2 drought for all regions, saying conditions had become “significantly dry and warrant detailed monitoring of drought conditions, close coordination among state and federal agencies, emphasis on water conservation, more stringent watering restrictions, and technical outreach and assistance for the affected municipalities.”
Massachusetts and the rest of southern New England have remained fairly well hydrated so far in 2021. But in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, year-to-date precipitation is more than six inches below normal and recent hot weather has dried soils, lowered streamflows and brought about water conservation measures, the Drought Monitor reported last week.
MassDEP said it plans to present its proposal to the Water Resources Commission on Thursday and will bring the proposal back in the fall for approval. The agency said it expects to promulgate the final regulations in November or December and the changes will become effective in early 2023 when registrations renew. The registrations were originally up for renewal in early 2022, but the date was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.