There's a move on Beacon Hill to correct what some lawmakers say is an injustice that dates back nearly 100 years, to when the state created the enormous Quabbin Reservoir.
A bill before the legislature would increase the annual compensation to the towns around the reservoir for sacrifices they've made in hosting and stewarding the drinking water resource.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the state dammed up the Swift River, about 65 miles west of Boston, to provide more water to the city. The towns of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich and Prescott were disincorporated.
“The four towns were slowly destroyed. All of the homes were razed and burned," said Elena Palladino, who lives just southeast of the Quabbin in Ware and wrote the book "Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley. "All of the trees and brush were cut down so that the valley could be prepared for the reservoir for eastern Massachusetts.”
And then the land was flooded. About 2,500 residents of the valley saw their lives upended. Even the dead were displaced. More than 7,500 bodies had to be exhumed and their graves moved.
The resulting Quabbin Reservoir was the largest man-made reservoir in the world devoted solely to proving a public water supply. Today, it provides water to about 2.5 million people across dozens of communities in Greater Boston, via the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
It's also a stunning destination for outdoor enthusiasts, surrounded by forested hills, hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife.
“I think it's so important to remember that it's a beauty born of loss for thousands of people who had to leave their homes," Palladino said. "And I think it's really important for those who enjoy that water to know where it comes from and what was sacrificed to build the Quabbin.”
The surrounding communities, including Hardwick, Shutesbury, New Salem and Petersham, don't draw any water from the reservoir. But they've had to absorb the populations that were uprooted in the reservoir's creation. They lost major roads and a rail line, which were ripped out to make way for the Quabbin.
And they took on the role of stewards of the 40 square mile reservoir, which they had to make sure not to pollute.
To compensate the towns in the watershed, the state makes payments to them (known as PILOT, or payments in lieu of taxes) for the land within their borders that it controls and protects. Last fiscal year, the payments totaled $8.5 million for all 12 towns, according to the MWRA. Current state law only allows for the payments on land above the high water mark.
Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton says it's not enough money for the region, which carries the burden of helping to maintain the watershed and has infrastructure issues to this day — including insufficient or nonexistent water-sewer systems, and poor internet and cell phone service.
Comerford co-sponsored the Quabbin Reservoir bill with Rep. Aaron Saunders of Belchertown. She spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins.
On how the creation of the reservoir led to economic stagnation in the area:
“The whole region was essentially frozen in time. ... The communities around the watershed remain small, very underdeveloped communities. There are development restrictions, understandably, because we want this water to remain pristine. But they're also really struggling to pay for their first responders and their schools, and they have significantly high tax burdens. And that's because they are not able to bring in an industry — in part because of the restrictions, but also in part because of the infrastructure lagging that takes place."
On the towns surrounding the reservoir not being able to get water from it:
"It is hard to fathom it. That is one of the provisions in the bill — that the MWRA actually explore what it will take to supply Quabbin watershed towns and the greater central and western Massachusetts region, as the body, the MWRA, is looking to expand into north[eastern] and southeastern Massachusetts and the MetroWest area.
"Of course, the Quabbin is the lifeblood of eastern Massachusetts. We're not suggesting anything different, and there's a great deal of pride and honor in western Massachusetts that we're able to steward it. ... But there is going to be a price to that as this commonwealth understands more and more that water is so precious and such an important commodity, that we have to honor the places that are making this water possible."
(Reporters' note: The MWRA says its board of directors recently authorized a study to assess how the authority can help the watershed communities access new sources of water. Towns with sufficient water and sewer systems might some day be able to tie into the Quabbin supply. Others will likely never get to tap into it.)
On the compensation called for in the bill. First, a surcharge on water drawn from the Quabbin:
"We're suggesting that a fee of five cents for every 1,000 gallons drawn from the Quabbin create this Host Community Trust Fund. Approximately $3.5 million, annually, would return to the Quabbin watershed communities to help them with everything you can imagine — [from] dealing with their own water-sewer infrastructure needs to helping figure out the right kind of businesses that can grow and prosper in the region, to help with the tax base revenue.”
On the second compensation provision in the bill, which calls for an increase in PILOT from the state to the watershed communities — including for the land under the water itself:
"When the state asks communities to steward state-owned land, it pays these PILOT payments. But here, it's saying that all of the land under the Quabbin [can't be considered for those payments]. And yet it's the very land and the very water that these communities are sacrificing for.
"A lot of the land in the watershed is state-owned land and therefore cared for — and I want to say beautifully [cared for] — by the state. But in the event that some of it is municipally-owned or protected in other ways, or privately owned but restricted, these municipalities still have to figure out how to pave the roads and repair them, and do all of the maintenance and patrolling that is necessary to keep this watershed safe. ... And they have to be compensated properly."
This segment aired on February 8, 2024.