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As drought grows, towns need to cut water usage

Cracked earth and a hose in a dried-up pond that is usually used to irrigate crops at Siena Farms in Sudbury. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

Franklin and Millis both rely on drinking water from the Charles River Watershed, and like the rest of Eastern Massachusetts, both towns now face a debilitating drought. But the rules enacted by the towns in response to plunging water levels are subtly different: Franklin has banned lawn sprinklers and other outdoor water uses to conserve water. In Millis, however, a similar ban only applies from 9 to 5.

The way the two nearby towns have responded to an identical problem is emblematic of how parched municipalities across Massachusetts have adopted a bewildering patchwork of responses to the drought. In some towns, residents can water their lawns or wash their cars only on certain days; in others, outdoor water use is banned entirely. In Wellesley, restrictions are voluntary; in next-door Needham, they’re mandatory. Fines for violators also vary. Those rules are the prerogative of each town and city. But the result is confusing and arguably unfair, since neighoring towns that share the same water sources may not be making the same sacrifices to conserve them.


The state can’t order towns and cities to harmonize their policies — at least, not unless the drought becomes even more severe and the governor declares an emergency. But it would be useful to nudge municipalities toward a less uneven set of rules and then help publicize them at the state level. The Baker administration has asked affected municipalities to ban outdoor water usage (filling swimming pools, washing cars, watering lawns, etc.), and on Thursday the governor added his voice, urging residents to conserve water and buy local food to support drought-stricken farmers.

After five months of dry weather, the drought has grown from an inconvenience for gardeners to a looming public safety threat. The “drought index” indicating forest fire risk in Massachusetts is at the same level as it is in some parts of the Rockies. Some towns, including Concord, have raised alarms about the possible impact of low water levels on the ability of firefighters to pump enough water in emergencies. The state put all of central and northeastern Massachusetts under “drought warning” last week, the second-highest level of alert, one notch below a formal emergency. (Boston and close-in suburbs use the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which operates vast reservoirs in central Massachsuetts and hasn’t suffered from the drought. But the MWRA is still urging homeowners to conserve water.)


If the dry weather persists, the state could force towns to adopt restrictions. But that’s a last resort. Cutting back on water use now will reduce the need for more drastic action should the drought worsen.