My Turn: Quabbin bill a bid for ‘more just future for our region’

Loons surface between dives in the Quabbin Reservoir in New Salem.

Loons surface between dives in the Quabbin Reservoir in New Salem. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

 JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

By STATE SEN. JO COMERFORD

Published: 05-21-2024 5:06 PM

 

I read Mike Magee’s My Turn column with concern [“Quabbin region will never see any benefits from reservoir,” Recorder, May 13]. Since it was published, I have received messages from constituents asking why I support giving more Quabbin water to eastern Massachusetts municipalities. I write now to clarify my work on the Quabbin Reservoir and my efforts to secure just recompense for Quabbin watershed communities.

Let me begin by saying that I understand why Mr. Magee feels the Quabbin region will never realize any benefits from the Quabbin Reservoir.

Eighty-six years ago, the state disincorporated and then flooded four western Massachusetts municipalities — separating families and neighbors, disinterring those buried in cemeteries, dismantling homes, shuttering businesses, fracturing transportation lines, freezing economies — to create a sustainable and pristine source of drinking water for metro Boston.

Today, the region that hosts the Quabbin Reservoir stewards thousands of acres of state-owned land where no development can occur and where the state does not pay property taxes, instead compensating these towns with woefully insufficient PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) payments. The economic, social, and public health results have been seismic for the municipalities and the people of the Quabbin region. The extreme difficulties with the town of Orange’s municipal budget are a poignant and heartbreaking recent example of the persistent struggles Quabbin communities face.

That’s why I filed legislation with Rep. Aaron Saunders to study the feasibility of giving western Massachusetts municipalities access to Quabbin water, and to adequately compensate the municipalities of the Quabbin Region for their sacrifice and their stifled economic development.

I have not “promised riches” and I’ve never promised that our legislation will pass into law. What I have done is exactly what legislators are supposed to do — file legislation on behalf of the district I’m elected to serve, and then fight like mad, arm in arm with constituents, to pass the legislation into law. I cannot change the past, but I am committed to charting a more just future for our region.

I’m not asking you to take me at my word, instead let me submit evidence.

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First, in October, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper, Undersecretary for the Environment Stephanie Cooper, Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation Brian Arrigo, Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game Tom O’Shea, and the Governor’s Western Massachusetts Director Kristen Elechko accepted Rep. Saunders’ and my invitation for a daylong tour of the Quabbin and discussion of the legislation.

Second, subsequent to that visit, Secretary Tepper encouraged the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) to study the feasibility of serving western Massachusetts municipalities with Quabbin water. The MWRA agreed. While it isn’t as large a study as I would have liked, it’s the beginning of the state taking responsibility for ensuring our communities have access to potable water now and into the future. And it shows the legislation is already having an impact.

The bill I filed would also improve the PILOT formula, add western Mass. board members to the MWRA, and create a community fund to support the region.

It’s critical that we win on this issue now, because Mr. Magee is correct that the Quabbin has excess water — and eastern Massachusetts is already poised to take it. Currently, just over 180 million gallons per day are being sent east, when the Quabbin’s safe yield is 300 million gallons per day.

This excess water is why the MWRA already completed feasibility studies for expanding its service area into the South Shore, Metro West, and Ipswich River Basin.

Now is an “all hands on deck” moment — not the time to signal defeat. I’m going to keep fighting for the Quabbin region, in partnership with Rep. Saunders and my other great partner in the north Quabbin, Rep. Susannah Whipps, for and with the people and the towns I represent, and I encourage you to join me. Sign up here:https://bit.ly/quabbin_alert.

Jo Comerford represents the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts State Senate.