The front lawn of Billerica’s Town Hall is a thick green carpet, watered daily by an automatic sprinkler system. Under normal circumstances, passersby might appreciate the beauty of the verdant oasis on Boston Road. But in July, the state issued a critical drought declaration, which required the town to institute mandatory water restrictions on nonessential outdoor water use by its customers.
Mary Leach, a Billerica resident for 20 years, says the town’s lush lawn sends the wrong message during the area’s water emergency.
“I love a green lawn as much as the next person, but during an extreme drought I am willing to let the lawn go dormant,” she said on Wednesday. “When people go by Town Hall, and see a beautiful green, they are getting the wrong message.”
The town declared the water restrictions on July 21, because of “deteriorating river conditions and supply.” The notice informed residents that “no nonessential outdoor water use was allowed,” and it advised customers to conserve water inside their homes, as well.
A drive around Billerica showed wide compliance with the outdoor water restrictions. The Billerica Public Library’s front lawn was brown and crunched underneath when walked on. A librarian, who asked not to be identified, said she didn’t mind that the town wasn’t watering the grass since she thought to do so was “wasteful.”
Across town, at the Talbot Oval, a public park on Talbot Avenue, two scraggly green-stemmed bushes looked out of place in the midst of a parched landscape. The same was true at Saint Andrews Church on Talbot Avenue, where the formerly green lawn had long ago faded to earth tones. Parishioners there said the brown grass was “sad but necessary.”
Town bylaws list exceptions to the mandatory restrictions including “irrigation of public parks and recreational fields by means of automatic sprinklers outside the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
Town Manager John Curran referenced those bylaws when asked why the town wasn’t abiding by the same rules set for its residents.
“The bylaws do allow the town to maintain park areas for public use and safety,” Curran wrote by email. “The town’s water intake is not close to historic lows at this time. We will continue to monitor the situation and reevaluate accordingly.”
In June, during the public discussion over the proposed Talbot Mills Dam removal project, Curran, who has been manager since 2010, had a slightly different take on the town’s water supply. He spoke against the dam’s removal arguing that it would jeopardize Billerica’s drinking supply by lowering the surface water available to pump through the water intake structure located about a mile upstream from the dam.
“The town has an interest in the water intake issue,” Curran said at the June meeting. “It’s our only water supply. It supplies water for 42,000 people in a 26-square-mile area. During the day, it’s probably more like 75,000 people. We take some 4 million gallons a day out of that river. We want to make sure the town’s water supply is protected.”
Photos of the dam from June, compared to images taken this past Monday, show how much the water flowing over the dam has slowed.
Billerica gets its water from the Concord River, one of 8,000 in the state, which is formed by the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers, and flows through the towns of Concord, Carlisle, Bedford and Billerica until it meets up with the Merrimack River in Lowell.
A water intake structure collects the surface water and conveys it to a water treatment plant that then funnels the clean, potable water to area households and businesses. Although that process is continuing without interruption, the drought has created increased concern and awareness as water levels continue to drop.
Jill Griffiths, a water resources engineer and ecologist with Gomez and Sullivan, an environmental and engineering restoration firm working on the dam removal project, said the low water levels are in line with their modeling predictions regarding the safety of the water supply.
“Water levels were found to be consistent with modeled drought conditions predicted earlier this year,” she wrote by email. “The minor drop in water levels anticipated due to dam removal upstream of the Fordway Bar/Pollard Street Bridge will not impact the capacity of the Billerica raw water intake, even during drought conditions.”
The drought and water level problems aren’t unique to Billerica or the Concord River. According to the state’s Drought Management Task Force, “the Commonwealth is experiencing decreasing levels in some reservoirs, dry streambeds, ponding, and diminished extent of streams in many watersheds leading to lack of flow.”
As of Aug. 9, fully two-thirds of the state was in a critical drought status. Many towns near Billerica, such as Chelmsford, Dracut, Westford, Burlington and Wilmington, are also under mandatory water restrictions.
The Nashua River, which is the watershed for a wide swath of communities from Pepperell to Fitchburg, is experiencing severe lows, according to Jessica Veysey Powell, a watershed scientist with the Nashua River Watershed Association.
“The drought is across the state, and it’s at a high level,” she said by phone from her Pepperell home. “We’re experiencing a lot of the same things as Billerica.”
Veysey Powell said the U.S. Geological Survey agency measures data points across the watershed using stream gauges.
“We have three gauges. One is on the Squannacook River, which a big tributary to the Nashua, and that’s in West Groton,” she explained. “The stream level there is at the fourth percentile meaning only 4% of the time has it been running as low as it is now.
“It’s a similar situation on the North Nashua in Fitchburg where we have another gauge. It’s in the second percentile,” Veysey Powell said. “Both of these measurements are much below normal. The third gauge is in Pepperell, and that’s at the 17th percentile.”
Veysey Powell, who has been working with wildlife and wetlands for more than 20 years, said that though the Nashua River is below normal, it is still usable for small motorboats, canoes and kayaks. It’s the smaller tributaries, or even rivers like the Nissitissit and the Squannacook, she said that are quite low and can’t be navigated by watercraft.
“It’s in those bodies in particular that we are worried about water quality now with the drought,” Veysey Powell said. “And that’s because as the water levels go down, any pollutants that are in that water such as E. coli are going to get concentrated.”
Additionally, as the water levels go down, the temperature in the water goes up.
“Hot water contains less oxygen,” Veysey Powell said. “There are negative impacts that are happening on the fish and the invertebrates that are trying to live in these waters.”
Although data is still being collected to measure the drought’s wide-ranging impacts, Veysey Powell believes that, “If we had not had any water restrictions in place, it would be a more dire situation.”
Back in Billerica, the Dracut Landscaping crew was cutting the desiccated lawn of a customer on Boston Street. The yard matched the look of hundreds of area homes as residents largely seemed to be abiding by the outdoor watering restrictions.
Keith Kapalot, of Lowell, paused during his weed-whacking duties to comment on the drought’s impact on the landscaping business. “There’s a lot of dead lawns. It’s like straw, it just flies everywhere. The only thing that grows, are the weeds,” he said with a laugh.
Up at Town Hall, water restrictions or not, the sprinklers were soaking the ground with precious water every morning, keeping the landscape a vibrant green.