NORFOLK — Mark Gilmore’s patio once overlooked a soothing expanse of spring-fed water in a state-protected “great pond.” These days, Gilmore looks out at a lengthening stretch of rock-strewn dirt.
Kingsbury Pond, once 26 acres, is now closer to a 9-acre puddle. And angry residents who live on its wooded shores are quick to name a culprit: the neighboring town of Franklin, which operates a nearby well that sucks up hundreds of thousands of gallons of groundwater every day.
“It’s starting to get scary. You can’t just suck a pond dry,” said Gilmore, who like many neighbors thinks Franklin is siphoning water from an aquifer that should be filling Kingsbury Pond. “This is the lowest that anybody has seen it — ever.”
But where the pond’s admirers see a water-guzzling goliath next door, Franklin officials and some environmentalists see something more benign: a dry 2015 that lowered water levels across Massachusetts.
It’s a clash with roots in the 1960s, when Norfolk — in a gesture of good will — gave thirsty Franklin a patch of land for the well. But ever since Kingsbury Pond began shrinking, its admirers said, Franklin has showed little interest in returning the kindness.
“It’s a heartache to look out and just see the injury to the environment and the injury to the public,” said Manuel Cerqueira, a Canton schoolteacher who has lived on the pond since 1994. “It’s really a travesty.”
More than 700 people have signed an online petition to save the pond and put pressure on Franklin, which is more affluent than Norfolk and has three times its population, to scale back pumping at the well near Kingsbury.
The solution is not a simple one, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, whose officials argue that what happened to this kettle pond is happening across Massachusetts.
“We would draw the conclusion that a lot of it is due to low precipitation,” said Rebecca Weidman, watershed management director for the DEP.
Gilmore and many other Norfolk residents are not buying that explanation. And even the data supplied by DEP lead to questions: Rainfall in Franklin has dipped significantly below the state average only four times since 2000.
“It’s not like the pond came back in the wet years,” said state Representative Shawn Dooley, a Republican from Norfolk. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Under state law, a “great pond” must cover at least 10 acres at the time of its designation and be accessible for public fishing and boating. But during much of the year, Kingsbury Pond is smaller, muddy, and of limited recreational use, residents said.
“It’s almost like you don’t even want to look at it, seeing something as it’s being killed and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said Paul Butters, who lives near the pond.
Jeffrey Nutting, the Franklin town administrator, echoed the state’s suggestion that low rainfall has contributed to Kingsbury’s shrinkage. A total of 39.5 inches fell in Franklin last year, compared with the historical state average of about 46 inches, according to the DEP.
Beyond that, Nutting said, “it’s tough for me to give you a fact-based answer. ... I’m not a geologist.”
Franklin experienced dramatic growth in the 1990s — from about 22,000 residents to just under 30,000, Nutting said — but the town’s daily water consumption has dropped 500,000 gallons a day since 2001, to 2.6 million in 2014.
During that time, Well No. 4 has pumped significantly less than its permitted capacity of 900,000 gallons a day, according to state and town figures. In 2014, about 600,000 gallons a day were drawn from the well.
“We continue to look at ways to reduce water consumption,” said Nutting, who swam in Kingsbury Pond as a child. “Do I wish the pond was full and there were no issues? Sure.”
Nutting said Franklin is a state leader in water conservation, citing its limit of one day a week for lawn watering. In any event, government officials said, pumping from the well near Kingsbury Pond is within its rights.
Julie Wood, director of projects for the Charles River Watershed Association, seconded Nutting’s assertion that Franklin is a good steward. Finding a way to fill Kingsbury Pond again “is probably a multivaried solution,” she said.
In search of a solution, Franklin officials were invited to a community meeting in Norfolk in January. More than 150 people, but none of the official Franklin invitees, showed up, said Dooley, the state representative from Norfolk.
For many Norfolk residents, an attitude adjustment needs to happen soon. “We don’t want a Band-Aid. We want this to be resolved,” Cerqueira said. “I don’t want my kids to be discussing this with DEP five to 10 years from now. Do the citizens want any town to go in and just dry up a pond?”
Kyle Pribish, another Kingsbury Pond resident, said a remedy “feels like a responsibility.”
“At the end of the day, we want that water to come back up,” said Pribish, who is cofounder of WorthWild, a crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing platform for environmental causes. “I haven’t heard the bullfrogs for a couple of years.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.