Water Wars Brewing In The Northeast

12/30/09 5:50PM Sacha Pfeiffer
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WBUR/Sacha Pfeiffer
(Host) When it comes to water shortages in the U-S, the Northeast probably isn't the first place that jumps to mind. California would be more like it.

But as part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, Sacha Pfeiffer of WBUR reports there are water wars brewing the region.

(Sound of flowing water)

(Pfeiffer) Bob Zimmerman stands by an old dam on the Charles River outside Boston. He's head of the Charles River Watershed Association, and he says even though the dam is gushing now, it's not always like this.

(Zimmerman) "Literally, at times in the summertime, particularly in August and early September, this would be a trickle coming over this dam, and there are times where it doesn't flow at all."

(Pfeiffer) When rivers run low, that threatens wildlife that depend on them for survival. Zimmerman says states need to get serious about limiting how much water is taken out of streams and rivers for human use.

(Zimmerman) "If we don't do that, these rivers are going to seriously suffer, and we really will run into a shortage-of-water problem."

(Pfeiffer) People get drinking water from many places, including reservoirs and wells. But we also get it from rivers and streams, where we share it with fish. That isn't easy. For one thing, stream flow isn't a constant. When snow melts in the spring, rivers rise. In the heat of the summer, they slow down -- yet that's when people want the most water. And it's when rivers have been pumped dry.

(Burt) "That really is not acceptable."

(Pfeiffer) Laurie Burt is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

(Burt) "The challenge is, how do we make sure that doesn't happen, but we are also providing water when it's needed and where it's needed?"

(Pfeiffer) Four prominent conservation groups recently resigned from a state panel in Massachusetts because of a new policy they said could let rivers turn to mud. They rejoined after Burt's office rescinded that policy.

(Burt) "What we urgently need, and has been needed for a very long time, is to be able to predict how much water can safely be withdrawn from a river basin."

(Pfeiffer) Because even in this water-rich region, demand threatens supply. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, thousands of fish were killed when rivers were pumped dry. Some reservoirs in New York are dangerously low. In Maine, Vermont and the rest of ski country, snow-making takes millions of gallons of water from streams and rivers.

(Gara) "People are so used to turning on the faucet and having a nice, clean, ample supply of water, and they don't understand all of the work and all of the money that goes into making sure that that water is coming to them in that way."

(Pfeiffer) Elizabeth Gara is executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association. That state has proposed new rules that would redirect more water to rivers and streams and less to public use. But Gara warns this could hamper economic growth and force water utilities to restrict people from filling swimming pools and washing cars.

(Gara) "We have to be very careful when we deal with water allocation policies that we make sure that when we're trying to protect aquatic life, that we don't do that to the detriment of human life."

(Pfeiffer) But some states are already imposing tough restrictions. Vermont, for example, regulates how much water ski resorts can divert. Maine sets a minimum flow for its streams and rivers. And Massachusetts is working to define the amount of water that can be taken safely from its waterways. Mark Smith of the Nature Conservancy says more states should consider these kinds of steps.

(Smith) "It's often pitted as fish vs. people, or people vs. fish. But the issue that we're working on is how to make it an "and" statement -- that it's water for people and water for nature, and how do you really figure that out?"

(Pfeiffer) For now, there's no one answer. But as more streams and rivers in the Northeast sometimes run dry, more communities are tackling that question.

For VPR News, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

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