Campus & Community

Reservoir system proposed to meet needs

4 min read

New England’s population growth seen outstripping current water supply

A former Massachusetts water official is proposing a new network of central Massachusetts reservoirs to meet population-driven demand that he says will outstrip current supplies in the coming decades.

Tom Baron, former director of operations for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, said his proposed 16-reservoir expansion of the current reservoir system for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island will meet the needs of most of southern New England for the next century and beyond. The additional supplies are needed, he said, because the three-state region adds 64,000 people per year, which would result in a 60 percent increase in the region’s population over the next century.

If built with a mind to sustainable resource extraction and power generation, he said, the project would cost ratepayers just a dime a day for the 30-year duration of bonds issued to pay for the construction.

Baron outlined his plan Tuesday evening (April 7) at the Geological Museum’s Haller Hall as part of the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s Green Conversations lecture series. After his presentation, Baron was joined in a discussion by Harvard Forest Director David Foster, and Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering and Environmental Health John Briscoe.

Foster questioned whether building large new reservoirs was an appropriate strategy in a social climate where the emphasis is on conservation and using fewer resources. He pointed out that during a five-year drought in the 1960s there was a huge public outcry and demand for new reservoirs. Subsequent conservation — driven by the imposition of a water-use fee needed to pay for Boston Harbor cleanup — greatly reduced demand. The reservoirs were never built.

“We don’t have to live by the projections of the past,” Foster said.

Baron insisted, however, that today’s situation is different. While population growth continues across southern New England, conservation efforts have already driven water use down from 200 gallons per person to between 80 and 100 gallons. In addition, leaks in the pipeline that brings water from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts to Boston — which used to result in the loss of 10 percent of the system’s water — have been plugged.

“These [conservation proposals] are necessary steps, but we cannot conserve to zero,” Baron said. “All of these individual efforts are necessary, but in the end, the ultimate bottom line is we have to build bigger.”

Baron’s plan, which has yet to find a legislative champion, would build 16 new reservoirs, mainly in the highlands of central Massachusetts. That location would save the cost of pumping the water by allowing gravity flow to the major population centers of southern New England: Boston, Providence, Hartford, New Haven, and Connecticut’s suburbs near New York City.

The plan is designed to pay for itself in part. Baron proposes mining gravel from the reservoir beds, erecting 200 wind turbines on the inaccessible watershed lands that would result, and incorporating hydropower in the reservoir designs. The hydropower component could be utilized to generate both power and money as the water flows to the cities and through a plan to exchange water between reservoirs, generating power during the day when rates are high and pumping it back uphill at night when rates are low. More revenues would come from timber — both the initial cutting of the land to be submerged and ongoing maintenance cutting in the watershed.

The proposal would provide enough storage capacity to hold a three-year supply of water for the region, which should be enough to weather droughts and forestall the need for water restrictions and water bans.

Baron said the water supply system that is operating today was conceived over 100 years ago. The 1895 plan resulted in the construction of the Wachusett and Quabbin reservoirs and has largely succeeded in providing a safe water supply for Boston metropolitan communities.

Baron said that though the region’s population has been growing steadily, ample water is still available, it just has to be managed. Just one-third of the annual runoff from rainstorms would provide water for 34 million people. Just a third of the annual flow of the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers would supply an additional 37 million people.

“It’s not that we don’t have the water resources, it depends on how we want to use [them],” Baron said.

While Boston’s water supply has several years’ worth of storage capacity, the reservoirs that supply Springfield, Providence, and Hartford have just one or two years’ storage, making them vulnerable in drought years, Baron said. His proposal would provide enough water to, at current growth rates, see the region through the next two to three centuries.