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editorial

Mass. towns can do more to cut water pollution

No town official wants to be accused of pouring money down the drain. That, however, is what mayors and selectmen across Massachusetts may need to do when long-anticipated new federal environmental rules come into effect.

By the end of this year, the EPA is expected to issue tougher new regulations governing municipal stormwater systems, the underground networks that collect rainwater from street drains and pipe it into rivers and lakes. Many of those systems are old and dirty, and the new rules will require towns and cities to try harder to eliminate one of the last major sources of water pollution in Massachusetts. The new rules are expected to call for more monitoring, stronger enforcement against sources of contamination, and more frequent cleaning.

Municipalities are starting to kvetch, calling the impending new rule an unfunded federal mandate. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has also flagged some parts in a draft version of the rules that could be confusing or impractical, like a requirement that towns put up signage at stormwater outfalls, even those in remote areas where nobody is likely to see them.

Still, while a few small tweaks may be warranted before the final language is issued, the EPA is on the right track. Yes, the rules could cost towns money to comply — few environmental protections come free. But the prospect of higher bills could also prod municipalities to seek efficiencies through regional consolidation or though modernizing the way they manage their stormwater systems, steps that are overdue anyway.

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Runoff is now a prime source of pollution in Massachusetts, and municipal stormwater systems are a prime source of runoff. Last month’s algae bloom in the Charles River, likely caused by runoff, and the growth of invasive water chestnut in the Mystic are recent reminders of why a stronger effort is needed.

Contamination comes from several sources. Fluids drip from cars in parking lots; then, when it rains, rainwater sweeps the oil and other pollutants off the pavement into storm drains. Once underground, stormwater can pick up sewage that leaks in from sewage pipes, or gets dumped there illegally. By the time the once-pure rainwater makes it into a river, it’s picked up all kinds of oil, grease, metals, and chemicals.

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Fixing those sorts of problems — by closing illicit connections and investing in green infrastructure like porous pavement — will never top any town’s priority list. The results are too often invisible. And in some cases, the pollution from one town may only be felt downstream.

One way municipalities can absorb the cost is through regional cooperation. There’s no reason why each town and city in the state needs its own stormwater system, and municipalities may be able to achieve an economy of scale through combining them.

Another way to pay for the cost of compliance would be through fees levied on businesses and homeowners that generate runoff, much the way towns can charge for sewer services. That’s a standard approach throughout the United States — with the exception of New England, where it remains rare. Although there is apparently no obvious legal barrier to setting up stormwater utilities here — and Newton and several other Massachusetts municipalities already have — the state Legislature could also help by explicitly allowing communities to adopt such fees to cope with any increased compliance costs.

Nudging towns in that direction would be beneficial. The best reason for the EPA to act, though, is to uphold the intent of clean-water legislation: residents of Massachusetts deserve clean water, and polluters must be held to account — even when they’re local governments.

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