Photo: Boston skyline and the Charles River

Boston skyline showing the Back Bay area and the Charles River.

ABOUT LESSONS FROM THE FIELD: National Geographic is inviting scientists, community leaders, water managers, conservationists, and activists to share the lessons they’ve earned from the field—and the innovative solutions they’ve found. We hope their stories will build a shared sense of community and motivate the public across the world to conserve freshwater and the diversity of life it sustains. Read all of their stories.

Photograph by Steve Dunwell/ The Image Bank /Getty Images

Sandra Postel

Freshwater Fellow, National Geographic Society

It’s hardly in a water-short region, so it may come as a surprise that Boston, Massachusetts, stands out as one of the biggest success stories in urban conservation in the United States.

An email crossing my desk early in 2005 announced that total water use in greater Boston had just dropped to a 50-year low—a stunning achievement, especially in light of the city’s booming economy in recent decades. And the region’s water demand has continued to drop: by 2009, it had fallen 43 percent from the 1980 peak.

Why and how did this New England capital come to add this feather to its cap? The reasons offer some important lessons for citizens and communities around the country and the globe.

Back in the 1980s, Boston faced a familiar problem: its demand for water would soon outstrip the reliable supply of its water system. Its 412-billion-gallon reservoir was tinkering on half- to a quarter-full, setting the greater Boston area up for significant problems should a drought take hold. The region was using about 350 million gallons a day (mgd) back then, when safe levels were considered 300 mgd.

The water authority responded as most water providers would in such a circumstance—by looking for new water sources to expand the supply.

The best option seemed to be a diversion from New England’s biggest river, the Connecticut, which runs all the way from the northern tip of New Hampshire to the Long Island Sound. The proposed diversion would siphon new supplies over to the Quabbin Reservoir, which had been created decades earlier by damming the Swift River in western Massachusetts, and drowning out four rural towns.

Aqueducts carry drinking water 65 miles from the glistening Quabbin to the toilets and taps of greater Boston, passing through the Wachusett Reservoir along the way.

When citizens and environmental groups got wind of the diversion scheme, they wasted little time in voicing concern about the ecological impacts, including potential harm to efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River. They pushed for a different approach—reducing Boston’s water demand rather than expanding its supply.

In response, the newly established Massachusetts Water Resources Authority  (MWRA)—the water wholesaler for 2.5 million people and more than 5,500 large industries in Boston and 50 surrounding communities—began an aggressive conservation program. It set out to detect and repair leaks in the aging pipes of the water distribution system. It retrofitted about 350,000 homes with efficient plumbing fixtures, such as low-flow showerheads. It conducted water audits of large industrial facilities and refurbished water meters to better track how much water the agency sells to communities. The MWRA also raised water rates and stepped up public education about the importance of water conservation.

An additional boost came In 1988, a year after the program got under way, when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to require low-volume toilets in all new construction and remodeling—an important precursor to the federal efficiency standards passed four years later.

In a unique arrangement, MWRA also funds a citizen watchdog group called the Water Supply Citizens Advisory Committee, based in the western Massachusetts town of Hadley, not far from the Quabbin Reservoir. Aided by active citizen participation, the conservation program produced a steep and steady decline in greater Boston’s water demand: total use in 2009 was 70.9 billion gallons (268.5 million cubic meters) per year, a 43 percent drop from the 1980 peak of 125.5 billion gallons (474.9 million cubic meters) .

Today, the Quabbin Reservoir is brimming with water, and the diversion from the Connecticut River is no longer on the table.

The conservation program also proved cost-effective, and spared Greater Boston residents the estimated $500 million-dollar capital expense of the diversion project.

But the story isn’t over. Controversy swirls over what to do with the “surplus” water in the Quabbin. With its customer base now using so much less water per person, MWRA is looking to spread its fixed costs among more customers. Within the last six years it has added five more communities to its service area. For their part, environmental groups would like to see the “surplus” used to restore more natural flows to the Swift River in order to improve fisheries and other ecosystem benefits.

Spawned by conservation’s success, the debate about  the best use of “surplus” water is one that a growing number of cities around the country running short of water would probably love to be having.

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. Author of several acclaimed books, including the classic Last Oasis, Postel also serves as lead water expert for the National Geographic Society’s Freshwater Initiative. Postel is a 1995 Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and in 2002 was named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.

For more information:

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

Water Supply Citizens Advisory Committee

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