State Hearing In Lenox Addresses Water Quality Issues

Nov 2, 2017

A state hearing in Lenox this week focused on water quality across Massachusetts. 

Smitty Pignatelli is co-chair of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. The Democrat of the 4th Berkshire House District says holding the hearing in Lenox gave groups in the western Massachusetts a seat at the table.

“We hear a lot about how Beacon Hill doesn’t know where the Berkshires are,” Pignatelli says. “Well, we brought Beacon Hill to the Berkshires.”

Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, called on lawmakers to buckle down to salvage the state’s waterways.

Many of the bills under consideration work to address both our failing water infrastructure and how drought conditions affect our wetlands and waterways,” Winn says. “My hope is that we can be strategic in our rebuilding of our infrastructure to help both problems and create a system that is longer lasting and less expensive by relying more heavily on green infrastructure.”

Gabby Queenan, policy analyst for the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, urged lawmakers to establish sustainable water resources funds for municipalities.

“This legislation provides them with the tool they can use to mitigate the impacts of new and increased water uses. For the developers the water banking requirement may help them keep their projects moving as they won’t be responsible for offsetting impacts on site,” Queenan says. “And for us advocates, we like this bill because tools like this make it easier for towns to comply with environmental regulations.”

Pignatelli says the crux of the problem is that municipalities are using more water because of climate change.

“We were lucky in the Berkshires not to have experienced the severe drought that other parts the state went through, last year especially but maybe the last couple of years,” Pignatelli says. “We had pocketed drought. We had a couple of wells – shallow wells – that dried up in western Mass.”

Neponset River Watershed Association Director Carrie Snyder says drought harms waterways.

“Pathogens levels skyrocket throughout the river,” Snyder says, “and there simply wasn’t enough water to dilute the pollution.”

Last year, the Association reported the lowest average monthly flow of water in 72 years. Wayne Castonguay of the Ipswich River Watershed Association also saw record lows.

“Virtually all of the adult fish in the entire river died off last year,” Castonguay says.

The town of Ipswich declared a drought emergency. It was down to about a three-week water supply. Snyder says municipalities have different approaches to water conservation and drought management.

“As a result it is difficult to achieve compliance,” Snyder says. “Water commissioners are unwilling to enforce water restrictions because it’s politically unattainable when the next town over doesn’t have restrictions or has very different restrictions.”

Environmentalists are seeking a statewide drought management and water conservation initiative.

“Climate change is real. I think we need to address that. We need to be doing things so that people aren’t using water unnecessarily to water their lawns or irrigate their gardens,” Pignatelli says. “I think we need to have some policies to protect our natural resources.” 

Meanwhile, more and more municipalities are reeling from aging infrastructure, and lead in water supplies has become a concern.

Robert Pleasure is a member of the South Hadley Citizens’ Environmental Working Group. He says the town’s water quality is unknown.

“We are really emblematic of the kind of town, the town that doesn’t participate in the statewide program of voluntary testing and reporting to the state,” Pleasure says. “We’re a town that does its own thing, and that is problematic.”

Pignatelli says the state has to take charge and make the process uniform.

“It can’t be another unfunded mandate from the state to ‘Get the Lead Out,’” Pignatelli says. “We have to look at the source, and the source is how it gets into the building and what kind of piping and what kind of materials we use.”

Elevated lead and copper levels were found in North Adams public schools in December 2016. After failing to maintain pH levels in the city’s water supply, in October North Adams hired a consultant to conduct a report on its corrosion control system, which is to be completed before January.

The committee’s recommendations are due in February.