Boston and eastern Mass. would reimburse rural communities for use of Quabbin water, under new bill
Students and teachers at Swift River Elementary School cannot drink its tap water, which has been contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals since 2021. An eight-minute drive away, clean water from the Quabbin Reservoir flows east, providing eastern Massachusetts with 200 million gallons of water every day.
"The Quabbin Reservoir provides life for eastern Massachusetts and allows the eastern part of the state to grow and expand — and yet for far too long, far too long, the recompense for towns that steward this water has been a pittance relative to the value," state Sen. Jo Comerford, of Northampton, said Wednesday.
For the first time, western Massachusetts lawmakers have filed legislation to financially reimburse the rural towns that surround the man-made reservoir, calling for regional equity and payment for how generous the region has been with "giving its resources to the commonwealth."
The bill (H.897/S.447), filed by Comerford and state Rep. Aaron Saunders, of Belchertown, would set a 5 cent per 1,000 gallon excise on Quabbin water. The lawmakers estimate the tax would produce an estimated $3.5 million, to go to Quabbin watershed communities and local nonprofits with a focus on these towns' health, welfare, safety and transit.
Testifying before the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, Saunders said the tax would cost an average Boston household 6 cents per month.
"I hope that the committee feels that 6 cents per month is not too high a price to pay for regional equity," he said.
The reservoir's water is sent east under the control of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which supplies water for 53 municipalities, including some of the state's largest communities such as Boston, Quincy, Newton and Somerville.
The MWRA is governed by an 11-member board of directors, of which only one "calls western Massachusetts home," Comerford said. The bill would add two seats to the board, both filled by an individual from the Connecticut River Valley.
"Massachusetts has taken from its western counties water and food, as we maintain open space and reservoirs that sink carbon and actually breathe for us, without fully grappling with the cost of maintaining these treasures, without justice for what these communities have lost and continued to give up," Comerford said.
In an effort to repay "what these communities have lost," the legislation would also mandate payments in lieu of taxes to the towns surrounding the reservoir, for the cost of absorbing the four towns that were flooded to make the body of water.
Altogether, the state took 80,443 acres of land to create the reservoir in the early 20th century. The towns, Dana, Enfield, Prescott and Greenwich were abandoned and completely flooded, while parts of other towns were taken for the reservoir. These surrounding towns receive payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for the areas of their municipalities that they can no longer tax because they are underwater.
But, Comerford argued, watershed communities should also receive payments for the four towns that no longer exist, as townspeople, businesses and even cemeteries moved to surrounding dry land shortly before their towns disappeared under the surface of the Quabbin.
"The state took the land, it owns the land, the towns can't assess taxes on the land, but there is no PILOT compensation for the land under the Quabbin," she said. Under the bill these payments would go to the communities surrounding the reservoir.
The last provision in the bill would mandate that as the MWRA explores opportunities to expand into new communities, that it look into supplying water for the communities directly in the Quabbin region, as well as towns in the Westfield River, Chicopee River, Connecticut River and Millers River Valley basins.
Glen Ayers, a recently retired regional health agent for Franklin County who worked in public water supply for several towns in the Quabbin region, told the committee Wednesday that he supported the bills.
"This bill is critical to addressing the sacrifice that these towns have made and continue to make on a daily basis," he said. "It would address the inequity and the unfairness that currently exists and begin to repay that sacrifice. And it will address the dedication the small towns, the small undeveloped towns, in the Quabbin region have shown to their counterparts in the metro region."