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OPINION

How to get Massachusetts through the next drought

The state needs better tools. Passing the drought bill would be a good start.

The Riverside Cemetery in Saugus, pictured Aug. 25, no longer has a green lawn surrounding headstones due to the drought.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts is getting warmer due to global climate change, and despite a few days of rain — finally — this week, droughts are now a fact of life here. This year’s searing drought has meant dry streams, failing crops, unusually persistent forest fires, disappearing groundwater, and most recently, at least one town — Pembroke — struggling to maintain its water supply.

One simple and effective response to a drought is lawn-watering restrictions — less water for lawns leaves more water for streams, agriculture, firefighting — even cooking and bathing. Carefully managing our shared water is key to climate resiliency. Unfortunately, the laws in Massachusetts make it nearly impossible for watering restrictions to be applied fairly and evenly across the state.

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No one likes to be told that they can’t water their lawn, but in hot, dry summers such as this one, the water sprinkled on many of those lawns is needed for sustaining streams and wildlife. Many rivers, including parts of the Blackstone in central Massachusetts and the Ipswich on the North Shore, were transformed for most of the summer into disconnected puddles, unsafe places for fish or turtles to live and virtually impossible for canoes or kayaks to navigate. Streams flowing into the Charles and Neponset rivers were the driest on record, and many dried up entirely. In the Connecticut River Valley, the town of Greenfield had to replace the swimming portion of its annual August triathlon with more running — despite a heat wave. Without enough dilution, bacteria from wildlife made the Green River unsafe for swimming.

Droughts are a statewide problem and require a statewide solution. Yet Massachusetts water conservation rules are largely set at the local level, thanks to historical happenstance, a few lawsuits, and slowly evolving regulations that have been applied inconsistently across the Commonwealth. As a result, during a drought, residents of one town may be allowed to water just once or twice a week, only at night, or not at all, while residents in the next town over face no restrictions. Worse, rules often vary even within a town, depending on whether a resident purchases water from the local municipality or pumps it directly from the resident’s own well. That distinction should not matter, because the water often comes from the same aquifer.

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Partly to remedy this problem of patchwork regulations, in 2019 the Baker administration updated the state’s drought management plan. The new plan relies on current science for declaring droughts and ensures coordination among state agencies in deciding what to do when a drought begins. Key among the possible responses are escalating restrictions on nonessential outdoor water use as a drought worsens. Unfortunately, this plan is now only a recommendation. The state cannot require conservation actions unless it is in a declared drought emergency, which is far too late to save some water supplies and many streams.

The good news is that the Legislature has an opportunity to improve water sustainability by allowing us to be proactive against drought. Senate Bill 530, also known as the “drought bill,” would give the state’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs the authority to require regional water restrictions during a drought. The bill would make the state’s own drought plan operational early enough to be effective. A statewide or regional approach to saving water would also take some of the pressure off local water suppliers to achieve compliance with water restrictions.

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The drought bill is stuck in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, having fallen victim to the end-of-session time crunch that was particularly chaotic this July. Yet there’s never been a better time to pass this important bill — waterways are at historic lows across the state, and ecosystems, farms, summer recreation, and fall foliage are struggling.

Reducing nonessential outdoor water use won’t solve all our water problems. But Massachusetts needs better tools to get us through our next drought — and the ones that follow — safely and fairly. Passing the drought bill would be a good start toward that goal.

Julia Blatt is the executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and a member of the Commonwealth’s Drought Management Task Force.