In 1893, 130 years ago, our state Board of Health looked for sources of water for Boston – concerned for the sustainability of the Commonwealth’s port and major city.
It considered Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Sebago Lake in Maine, and the Merrimac and Nashua Rivers – deciding instead to instead take water from the Ware River, and to create a massive reservoir in what was known as the Swift River Valley.
The problem was: The valley was home to more than 3,250 people living in four towns (Dana. Enfield. Greenwich. Prescott.) – hotels, businesses, factories, post offices, town halls – you name it. What’s more there were thriving Native American communities in the region which were also displaced – having been historically displaced by settlement.
85 years ago – nearly to the day of this hearing. April 28, 1938 – the same four towns were disincorporated.
Hundreds of homes moved or dismantled. Houses of worship moved or torn down. Businesses closed. Dead disinterred. Families scattered.
And then flooded by the Swift River. The towns and the Native American communities.
All for this.
Quabbin water needed in eastern Massachusetts. Two hundred million gallons a day at present.
Approximately three million people in our Commonwealth drink this pristine water, filtered through a 100,000 acre watershed.
And how does this water get from western Massachusetts across the state? Enter the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority – or MWRA, and its predecessor, the Metropolitan District Commission, which moves western Mass water to eastern Mass residents.
And the MWRA is looking to expand. Offering water to a dozen communities north of Boston. Ten to the south. And 15 more in Metrowest.
But do you know who doesn’t have access? The Swift River Elementary School in nearby New Salem – it’s well poisoned with PFAS. Its children, staff, and faculty drinking water from plastic bottles as the Quabbin water flows east.
Water is life. This water is life.
The Quabbin Reservoir provides life for eastern Massachusetts, allows the eastern part of the state to grow and expand, and yet – for far too long – the recompense for the towns that steward this water has been a pittance relative to its value.
For too long Massachusetts has taken from its four western counties – water and food, even as we maintain open space and reservoirs that sink carbon and breathe for us – without fully grappling with the cost of maintaining these treasures. Without justice for what these communities have lost and continue to give up. Without care for our arrested economic development, our potable water issues, our sacrifice to keep that water clean, our lasting trauma.
This bill, which I am proud to file with Rep. Saunders, is a modest pivot toward a necessary new day.
It has four key provisions:
First: The bill establishes a fee of five cents for every 1,000 gallons drawn from the Quabbin to be placed in a new Quabbin Host Community Development Trust Fund. We estimate this would generate approximately $3.5 million annually to be distributed to municipalities and nonprofits in the Quabbin watershed.
Second: The bill rights a long-standing wrong concerning PILOT payments. The Watershed PILOT program reimburses municipalities for property tax revenue lost due to non-taxable state owned watershed lands.
However, the Watershed PILOT statute contains a discriminatory provision that is truly hard to defend.
Remember the history: To create the Quabbin, the state erased four towns. Their former land was annexed to six surrounding towns (Belchertown, Hardwick, New Salem, Pelham, Petersham, and Ware). These six municipalities now receive the watershed PILOT payment for the state-owned “annexed lands” within their borders … with one big exception.
And here’s the exception: For land that is now occupied by the Quabbin Reservoir, payment is based on the so-called “high water mark.” Even as the water level declines, the payments are based on the historical water level.
What’s more, for the underwater portion, there is no payment at all. The state took the land. Owns the land. The town can’t assess taxes on the land, but there is no PILOT compensation. None. Section 2 of the bill removes that provision and would provide watershed PILOT payments for land under the Quabbin Reservoir.
Third: The bill provides for greater representation from the Quabbin region on the Board of the MWRA by adding two additional seats from the Connecticut River Valley and expanding the board to 13. In the end, three of the 13 board members would call western Massachusetts home instead of just one.
Fourth and final: The bill addresses the issue of MWRA expansion. As I mentioned, MWRA is looking at a number of expansion options. As these options are explored, we propose that opportunities to serve communities that steward the water also be considered.
The bill also calls for similar evaluations of expansion into communities in the Westfield River, Chicopee River, Connecticut River, and Millers River basins. So that all the alternatives are before state policy makers.
I urge the committee to consider this bill. It’s the first time it has been filed, so no doubt it will need your close review and study. But it’s a needed first step. A door opening to a bit of equity and fairness.