Fishing Boat
Water Quantity and Why it Matters for Massachusetts Rivers

Maintaining sufficient water in our rivers and streams to support natural species, habitat, and river recreation is an important goal for the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and its members. River withdrawals, stress on groundwater levels, and other competing demands of our water resources all contribute to the amount of water left in-stream. It's an ongoing challenge for the state to balance human demands while also providing adequate streamflow for wildlife and habitat. Especially in the eastern portions of Massachusetts where population continues to grow and demand for water with it, Natural streamflow is threatened by development, particularly in Eastern Massachusetts where an increasing population has increasing water demands, leading to degraded fisheries, wetlands, water-based recreation and compromised water supplies.


The federal government doesn’t regulate water quantity (stream flows) or drinking water quality, and responsibility for implementing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) has been delegated to the states.


The need for water in eastern Massachusetts was recognized years ago, when the Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts was built in the 1930’s to supply drinking water to Boston and surrounding towns. This was, and continues to be, the largest interbasin transfer of water within the state. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s website has a good history of the development of its water system, including the Quabbin: The purpose of the Interbasin Transfer Act (1984) is to assure that any transfer of water or wastewater from a river basin protects the water-dependent resources of the donor basin. It is administered by the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission, and though it does not prohibit such transfers, it requires a review. More information can be found at: The purpose of the Water Management Act, passed in 1986, is to regulate water withdrawals so that Massachusetts has sufficient water to provide for its various needs, including the needs of the environment. All water users seeking to withdraw 100,000 new or additional gallons per day or more must apply for a permit from MassDEP.The duration of the permits is 20 years, with five-year reviews, and permits are issued on a rotating, watershed-wide basis in the state’s 28 major river basins. Water suppliers must comply with certain permit conditions, such as water use restrictions during droughts, and requirements to control “unaccounted for water use.” Municipalities can’t use more water than the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) predicts they will need within the 20-year permit period, according to that agency’s Water Needs Forecast for each town. The exceptions to these rules are “registered” water uses, which were existing uses grandfathered in when the Water Management Act was passed in 1986. About 80% of the state’s water use, including the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s water use, is registered. Registered water users do not need permits, and are not currently subject to the same kinds of requirements. MassDEP would need to promulgate new regulations in order to require these users to comply with conservation conditions, but this would not require a legislative change. Registrations must be renewed every 10 years. New regulations for the Water Management Act were promulgated in 2014, as a result of a nearly five-year long multi-stakeholder “Sustainable Management Initiative,” in an effort to better balance human water demand against the needs of the environment for water, and to prevent streams from drying up in the summer due to excessive water use. The new regulations created new “Sustainable Yields” for each basin that river advocates feel are unrealistically large (and not sustainable). The new regulations also created new rules requiring large water users impacting streams to decrease their water use, and communities seeking large increases to “mitigate” their use by implementing water recharge projects or other actions to improve stream health. You can find information about the Sustainable Water Management Initiative, including scientific reports upon which the new policy is based, and watershed maps here: You can find the Water Management Act, its regulations, policies, and Guidance, here: Water Conservation – Massachusetts created a set of Conservation Standards in 2006. These are periodically updated.


Founded in 2007, Mass Rivers works to strengthen statewide river policies in four areas: Water quality, stream flow, wildlife habitat, and investment in green infrastructure.

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