The New England states historically have been blessed with plentiful rainfall and free-flowing rivers. However, over the past century, changing demographic patterns and antiquated laws and policies have combined to strain the region’s water resources. The result is an increasing number of rivers with so little water that they no longer support aquatic life. Some literally run dry during the hot summer months.
New England’s water management system was established in the mid-1800s, when water supplies were plentiful and industrial users in urban centers such as Boston, Providence and New Haven largely monopolized water demand. Since that time, water use in the region has largely remained constant. The pattern of that use, however, has changed dramatically.
Over the past century, the region’s population rapidly expanded into the suburbs and other previously rural areas. In response, domestic water use has surpassed industrial use as the largest consumer of water in the region.
New England has experienced a spiderweb pattern of regional population growth and development away from the places that the region’s water supply system originally was designed to serve. This has led to the application of “quick-fix” solutions that cause groundwater depletion and the de-watering of small streams. These small headwater streams typically provide the cleanest and coldest water and support most of the region’s native trout populations.
This demand by widespread residential users throughout the region is compounded by localized water needs. Ski resorts – particularly in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – use significant amounts of water for snowmaking during the winter months. Bottled water operations withdraw spring water throughout the year. Golf courses and cranberry, blueberry and potato farms increase their water use during the summer months when natural flows are at their lowest.
The result is too many dry river-beds and too much impaired habitat. Connecticut identified over 60 rivers and streams that suffered from “flow impairment” in 2004. Massachusetts lists over 160 rivers in its low-flow inventory. Vermont classifies over 50 rivers as altered by flow reduction; Rhode Island names over 35. These figures likely are conservative. If unused dams that slow and heat rivers and poorly designed road culverts that restrict streamflow were counted, the number of dewatered or flow-impaired waterways would run into the thousands.