By the Shining Big-Sea-Water: Massachusetts Towns Team Up to Protect River, Drinking Water

This article was originally published in the Narragansett Bay Watershed Counts 2016 Report

For almost 30 years now, citizens of five Massachusetts towns have looked past their legal and political borders to come together and discuss how best to protect their shared drinking water supply: the Canoe River Aquifer.

“The water doesn’t end with your boundary,” said Janice Fowler, a resident of Easton and the committee’s secretary. “So it’s important to get together and understand what everyone else is doing.”

From such awareness came the Canoe River Aquifer Advisory Committee, which has three members from each of the five communities: Sharon, Foxborough, Mansfield, Easton, and Norton. Massachusetts’s state environmental officials praise the committee’s unique collaborative approach to watershed management as a model for a volunteer regional entity.

The aquifer receives water from the Canoe River watershed and is the primary drinking water source for over 50,000 people in the area. It has been designated as a Sole Source Aquifer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which means that it supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the area. This federal recognition is reserved for areas where an alternative drinking water source would be very difficult and expensive to implement if the aquifer were to become contaminated, underscoring the importance of protecting and managing the existing water supply.

“For many years we met once a month,” said committee chair Wayne Southworth, who has been with the organization since its inception in 1987. “There’s been a great sharing of information among the communities over the years.”

“Having monthly meetings where you see everybody really helps you understand who they are and where they’re coming from,” said Jennifer Carlino, conservation director for the town of Norton and a member of the committee. “We all have the same goal to ensure we have safe, reliable drinking water.” It is this cooperative spirit that has contributed to the advisory committee’s effectiveness.

The committee’s primary goal is to be proactive in protecting the water. Too often the model is reactive once an aquifer is contaminated. One of the most effective ways to maintain river health and associated water quality is to protect the riparian zone, which encompasses the land on both sides of the river. A riparian zone with healthy plants and trees serves as a buffer between developed or agricultural areas and the Canoe River. This buffer filters rainwater and runoff as they flow toward the river, preventing contaminants from entering it and, subsequently, the drinking water supply as it flows downstream.

The headwaters of the 14-mile long river trickle out from wetlands near the recreationally popular Lake Massapoag in Sharon and travel southeast through all five communities on the way to Winnecunnet Pond in Norton. The water eventually flows into the Taunton River, crosses state borders, and empties into Narragansett Bay. Again, the river knows no political boundaries.

Recognizing the importance of a healthy buffer, one of the advisory committee’s main projects has been the Canoe River Greenbelt Project, an effort to protect the Canoe River’s riparian corridor. Over the years the committee has succeeded in building a patchwork of protected land along the river.

“We don’t have a budget, we don’t have any money, we don’t deal with any money,” said Southworth. “We work with the land preservation trusts, the conservation commissions, and the towns to seek grants or outright gifts from landowners along the river.”

The benefits of protecting the river’s riparian zones extend beyond drinking water quality. The area was also designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) by the state of Massachusetts in recognition of the area’s highly significant environmental resources. According to the committee, over 600 species of plants, fish, and invertebrates, including many rare and endangered species, live within the aquifer’s watershed. A healthy riparian corridor also can shade the river to prevent the water from getting too hot for the animals that live there, and it can slow down water as it flows into and down the river as a means to prevent erosion of the riverbanks.

“Both of those designations [the Sole Source Aquifer and ACEC] have been great tools for the conservation agents in the five communities when they’re considering and assessing development projects,” said Southworth. “Those are the things that catch a developer’s eye and makes them think about their project differently when they want to do a project that may impact the river. It makes them be sure to get all their ducks in a row for the project to ensure approval and success.”

In addition to the riparian corridor project and reviewing development projects in the area, the committee also engages with the public. Examples include recreational and education events to inform even more people about the importance of a healthy Canoe River and aquifer, and educational seminars on land use (limiting impervious surfaces) and lawn care (less watering and use of fertilizers) so individuals can also take action in their community or even on their own property to help protect everyone’s drinking water.

“It’s very important for people to realize where their water comes from,” said Southworth. “Anything that you do on the surface of the land is going to be reflected in the groundwater of the area.”

During a recent June meeting at the Sharon Community Center, Southworth was asked what he envisions for the next 30 years of the committee.

“The next 30 years? Well, I’m just getting started,” said the retired Southworth, garnering chuckles from fellow committee members. “I’m very proud of this committee.”

Whatever project is next for the advisory committee, its work protecting the Canoe River and the local drinking water supply will continue to benefit not only nearby communities, but also bi-state residents downstream along the Taunton River and in Narragansett Bay for years to come.

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