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The nature and extent of human development in a watershed strongly influences the condition of local water resources.

For example, in a relatively undeveloped area like the Fox Den Wildlife Management Area in the town of Worthington, just over a third of the rainwater will recharge into the underground aquifer, while a similar amount will return to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration. A quarter of the rain will seep into the top layers of the earth and gradually flow towards the nearest stream or pond. This is referred to as interflow.

Less than 1 percent will become “overland flow” or “runoff” that travels quickly to the nearest water body. Meanwhile, rainfall in a more developed, urbanized area (such as greater Boston, Worcester or Springfield) dominated by rooftops, roads, driveways, highways and parking lots, follows a very different path.

Less than 1 percent will become “overland flow” or “runoff” that travels quickly to the nearest water body. Meanwhile, rainfall in a more developed, urbanized area (such as greater Boston, Worcester or Springfield) dominated by rooftops, roads, driveways, highways and parking lots, follows a very different path.

Comparing the pie charts of the undeveloped to the developed watersheds is sobering: Less than one-sixth of the rain that falls in the developed watershed will be absorbed into the ground, and runoff increases 30 times! While the specific runoff amounts vary slightly depending on soil type, slope and other watershed specifics, the end result is the same: When it rains in developed areas, we are not refilling our cup.

Simultaneously, though Massachusetts has experienced a net loss in human population in recent years, we are consuming more water in the commonwealth. So not only are we not refilling our cup, we are putting in more straws!

Across the state, municipal water departments are struggling to identify new water sources to meet increasing demand. For the majority of communities, the crisis of being “water short” occurs primarily in summer.

From June through September, residential water demand frequently increases as much as 50 percent. In some towns it skyrockets 200 percent to 400 percent!

This increase is not due to a vast surge in drinking, washing or cooking needs. This is for our lawns. Unfortunately, our increased water demand coincides with nature’s “low flow” period. So as rivers naturally decrease in water volume, we begin slurping through our straws all the more. This poses several challenges to water suppliers as well as aquatic life. Our insatiable desire to water our lawns is a major motivator for costly water system expansion.

If water rates increase, customers put in private wells (which still affect groundwater levels). If efforts to increase conservation succeed, overall revenue decreases unless rates are increased. Also, as water becomes less plentiful underground, well pumps must work harder to draw water from the ground, resulting in greater energy use and the need for more infrastructure maintenance and repair.

As consumers, we are radically inconsistent with our spending patterns. We don’t mind buying bottled water at $9.45 per gallon (for some of the pricier brands), but we take issue if our town water department increases the cost of tap water from $0.003 per gallon to $.025 per gallon.

Gabrielle Stebbins holds a master’s degree in sustainable development policy.

“Stewardship Matters” is sponsored by the Squannassit & Petapawag Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) Stewardship Committee. Visit our Web site at www.squannassit.org, or contact us at info@squannassit.org.

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