Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Our drought plan is all wet

GEORGETOWN — It looks beautiful, until you realize what you’re actually seeing.

Standing on a bridge in this northeastern town on yet another warm, blue-sky day, you’re surrounded by thick vegetation, a carpet of deep green and purple.

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It’s impossibly lovely. It also has the makings of a disaster.

These are the Georgetown wellfields, the natural reservoirs that feed the town’s water supply, and, like so many of the waterways around here, they’ve dried up. Instead of loosestrife and duckweed, you should be surrounded by water.

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“It shouldn’t look like this,” said George Comiskey, director of the Parker River Clean Water Association. The wellfields were just one stop on a grim tour he gave on Tuesday to show the effects of the drought that has besieged this part of the state for months. From another bridge, we stared down at dry rocks where the Penn Brook should flow; a few minutes away in Rowley, small, disconnected pools stood in place of what should have been a moving Mill River. The Parker is at its lowest level in 70 years.

A severe drought affects not just crops and water supplies, but wildlife, too. It brings toxic blue-green algae and tree-eating gypsy caterpillars, and threatens already-vulnerable bee populations. Because their routes have dried up, fish have been stranded upstream, or in pools, said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. Comiskey worries about the herring, whose movements up these rivers are vital to the food chain. In Groveland, he stood over a bucket of empty turtle shells. The Parker wetlands have been too dry to protect the threatened Blanding’s turtles from predators.

We haven’t done enough to prevent this. People are still diverting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for lawn-watering, with sprinkler systems accounting for 30 percent of summer water use in some areas.

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The state’s drought plan is inadequate now, and it will only be more so as climate change makes summers more severe. Advocates say the bar is too high, and the process too slow, for declaring a drought emergency — allowing the state to mandate water restrictions.

In the absence of those restrictions, it’s up to each town to decide how to respond to the crisis. In Georgetown, which should have seen a ban on lawn watering long ago, residents had been allowed to use their sprinkler systems every other day until this weekend. That’s pretty weak — especially when you think of those poor turtles.

Governor Charlie Baker held a press conference on Aug. 18, urging residents to conserve water, but Comiskey and others say it was too little, and months too late.

“I don’t see any sense of urgency,” said Comiskey. “That rubs off on water suppliers who say, ‘Well, we’ll just take small steps too.’”

Under current regulations, private wells aren’t even subject to the same restrictions as public ones. At the Black Swan Country Club, a couple of minutes from the dry wellfields in Georgetown, the grass is still a vivid green. “Private well water in use,” the signs read. But the water in their well comes from the same watershed as the rest of the town’s.

“It’s all the same water,” Blatt said. “It should be shameful to have a green lawn in a drought.”

Telling people to let their emerald patches of heaven go dry isn’t politically popular. But it’s absolutely necessary, and the state must go harder at it, including changing regulations to give it more, and timelier, control over water use, including private wells.

Matthew Beaton, secretary of environmental affairs, concedes that the drought plan “isn’t perfect,” but says, “at this point it is in our best interests to stay true to that plan so as not to create uncertainty.” He did say he was open to changes in the future, though.

But the future is always so very far away when it comes to the environment. We keep losing sight of the fact that the choices we make affect our neighbors — domestic and wild — and those who come after us.

A lush green lawn is still so beguiling — until you realize what you’re actually seeing.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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