By Grant Welker
WILMINGTON -- The state is weighing competing viewpoints from environmental groups and water districts as it shapes the final details of proposed water-use regulations expected to go into effect before the end of the year.
On one end are environmentalists who argue that proposed water-use limits won't go far enough to curtail effects on the state's waterways. On the other are water districts that insist that thresholds for water use are based on decade-old data that don't properly account for population growth.
Water districts could be subject to tight restrictions on how much water they use, or else be required to mitigate their effect on the environment by returning more treated wastewater to waterways or complete projects like removing dams that would benefit the Earth.
"Most water-utility people do consider themselves environmentalists," said Todd Melanson, the environmental-compliance manager for the Chelmsford Water District, who testified against the proposed regulations at a Department of Environmental Protection public hearing at Wilmington Town Hall on Wednesday.
The regulations, however, don't take into account conservation efforts made by water districts statewide, Melanson added. In Chelmsford, the town uses about 300 million fewer gallons per year than it used to, he said.
"I don't think those improvements have been recognized in these regulations," Melanson said.
Another water official, Michael Lavin, the Wrentham Water District superintendent, said the proposed limits on how much water can be taken from a source don't fairly take population growth into consideration. Limits will likely be based on use levels ending in 2005, and will add 5 percent to account for some growth.
"If we're taking historical usage, that's not a baseline," he said.
Most who spoke at the hearing are from watershed or other environmental groups.
"We're nothing short of incredibly disappointed," said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.
The proposed regulations, for example, might put tight restrictions on one resident but not on a neighbor who happens to take from a different water source, he said.
"It's really about time we treat everybody equally," Castonguay said.
Nancy Goodman, vice president for policy for the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said opposition to the science being used by the DEP reminds her of opposition to the existence of climate change. She urged tighter restrictions, including mitigation requirements that would most directly improve waterways.
"We urge the DEP to go even further," Goodman said. "We have taken underpriced water for granted for a long time, and that slowly needs to shift."
Groups including the Massachusetts Water Works Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Association have argued against the proposed regulations, saying they will add more costs to sewer bills and keep water districts from being able to invest in needed infrastructure improvements.
Average water bills already vary greatly across communities, according to Tighe & Bond, an environmental and engineering consultant.
The average bill is $661 in Tewksbury and $608 in Westford, according to a 2012 survey by the consulting group. In Burlington, the average bill was only $182, and the typical bill was less than $400 for the North Chelmsford Water District, Lowell and Billerica.
In north central Massachusetts, rates range from $254 in Fitchburg to $456 in Leominster to more than $500 each in Lancaster, Lunenburg, Shirley and Sterling.
Data also show that most water districts have been using less water on a per-capita basis than they did in 2006.
More efficient water use has been cited by water districts arguing they've already spent on improvements.
Among 17 districts across Greater Lowell and North Central Massachusetts, only the Groton, West Groton, Townsend and Wilmington districts used more water per person in 2012 than in 2006.
Almost all also make it under a threshold of 65 gallons per person per day, which will become an important factor in the new regulations for determining which districts would need to offset their environmental impact. Only Townsend and Westford used more than 65 gallons in 2012.
In what may also become a key factor, most communities also have unaccounted-for water rates of less than 10 percent of their total use. All except Littleton, Lowell, Shirley and Tewksbury made it under the 10 percent threshold, which is another measure of efficiency.
The state Water Resources Commission will ultimately vote on the new policies. Though the rules are expected to go into effect before the end of the year, it will be some time after that before water use in the Lowell area will change.
The Merrimack, Shawsheen and Nashua rivers' current permits don't expire until 2018. The Concord River permit is expected to be granted a one-year extension to August 2015.
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