By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, MARCH 5, 2013…..That burbling you don’t hear is the dry streambed.

Advocates and lawmakers, concerned about parched watersheds, especially on Cape Cod and in the cities and towns around Interstate 495, are preparing a package of bills to increase funding for water infrastructure and change the way water is handled.

“We want to have enough water to support all the needs we might have right now and into the future,” Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection Beth Card told a group gathered in the House Members’ Lounge for a briefing on the state’s water infrastructure.

While transportation infrastructure and education funding have been the crux of Gov. Deval Patrick’s planned spending and tax increases, Senate President Therese Murray has made it known she plans to do something about water infrastructure as well, where officials have identified a $20 billion funding gap over 20 years. That’s about the same size as the estimated gap in the transportation system.

State lawmakers are getting behind a raft of bills they hope will help protect streambeds from drying up and provide funding for repairs and innovations to water infrastructure.

“We don’t see water problems until they’re a big problem,” said Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D-Holliston), noting that water pipes are underground. Dykema said that a $2 billion 10-year bond bill (H 690) would provide municipalities with more funding to address water concerns, and there is an underlying need to change the way water is handled.

“Let’s not invest in yesterday’s technology. Let’s invest in tomorrow’s technology,” Dykema said.

One bill (H 689) would launch a DEP study into the feasibility of watershed-based planning, where all the communities around a river would collaborate on the use of the watershed’s water as opposed to figuring it out for themselves. Dykema has sponsored other legislation (H 2931) that would provide funds to pilot test new water technologies.

Already some regulatory changes are going into effect with the aim of keeping streams flowing.

The Sustainable Water Management Initiative is a method under development by DEP to answer the question: “How much water can be taken out of the ground before causing significant harm to our streams and rivers?” according to an overview by DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell. The agency is conducting mock SWMI permitting in Amherst, Danvers-Middleton, Dedham-Westwood and Shrewsbury.

“This will be a shift from the way we currently do business,” said Card. She said entities that drew large amounts of water from the ground before the Water Management Act became state law in 1986 are registered and “grandfathered in” for those amounts while newer entities must apply for 20-year permits and renewals.

Areas around I-495 are most affected by the depletion of water from streams. Areas to the east generally receive their water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, said Julia Blatt, of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, who said that 21 percent of the state’s waterways have “severe” flow problems, and even more have other environmental problems.

“You don’t want a fifth of your streams to be unhealthy or going dry,” Blatt said. She listed overwatering of lawns as among the behaviors that contribute to depleted watersheds, and said, “For many reasons we want to make sure there’s enough water in the stream, in the ground.”

Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) has introduced legislation (S 945) that would allow municipalities to establish a Sustainable Water Resource Fund, which could be used to do things such as purchase land to protect a public water supply. Another bill (S 358) would promote the use of best practices among water authorities.

Kevin McCluskey, director of public affairs for MWRA, which pipes water from the Quabbin Reservoir to Metro Boston, indicated that other municipalities might want to hook up with that water supply, saying he “can envision many more communities being tied into the best drinking water in the country.”