Ground And Groundwater — Duxbury Isn’t Utah!
By David A. Mittell, Jr.
The state is demanding that Duxbury reduce its per-person water usage from 80 gallons a day to 65 gallons in order to gain a new 20-year water-withdrawal permit. In the end, which could be soon, the town will have to do what the state tells it to do. But that doesn’t make it good public policy.
Water Superintendent Peter Mackin believes the only way the town could meet the state’s demand would be to ban all watering of lawns. That may be the state’s point — teach those Duxburyites with “wide lawns and narrow minds” (as Hemingway put it of Oak Park, Illinois) a thing or two!
The way I see it the state wants to implement an upstanding water-use policy if this were Utah, where fresh water is a scarce resource. But in New England, as in old England, rain is abundant. There are periods of drought when watering bans are called for. Most years Duxbury gets 60 inches of rainfall. Here, land itself is the scarce resource that needs to be jealously conserved.
In Utah, land is abundant and water is scarce. Utavians can build airports or super high-speed race tracks on their salt flats that would be reckless in Massachusetts, and insane in the state’s southeast corner. On the other hand, the amount of water taken out of Utah’s dry ground is and will always have to be a critical concern.
Massachusetts isn’t Utah but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. We squander land and open space, but regulate the product of our bounteous rainfall as if we were in a desert. Left to itself, Duxbury arguably does better than the state. There is lots of conservation land; and the water superintendent seems to have the gift of common sense.
If the state is looking for a cooperative relationship with the town it ought to focus not primarily on how much water comes out of the ground, but on the quality of the water that goes back in. We now know that large asphalt parking lots pollute the water that eventually returns to the soil and the sea. The state has a pretty good plan to break these up with planted spaces and basins that catch the water before it is contaminated.
We also know that fertilizers used on lawns and in gardens lead to chronic algae blooms in ponds. Two generations ago these were unknown. Pesticides also contaminate water that soon makes it to sea. These problems arise not from the amount of water taken out of the ground, nor nor from outdoor watering per se, but rather from what the water carries when it is returned to the ground.
There is thus a lot the state and the town, with common sense, can work together on.