Greenfield Recorder – Comerford shares details of Quabbin water legislation at Orange forum


State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, addresses constituents at Orange Town Hall on Monday regarding the Quabbin Reservoir water bills that she and Rep. Aaron Saunders, D-Belchertown, put forward.
STAFF PHOTO/ERIN-LEIGH HOFFMAN

ORANGE — State Sen. Jo Comerford met with area residents on Monday to answer questions and provide updates pertaining to bills that she and state Rep. Aaron Saunders have put forward to study the feasibility of giving western Massachusetts municipalities access to Quabbin Reservoir water and to adequately compensate the municipalities of the Quabbin region.

The bills, “An act relative to the Quabbin Watershed and Regional Equity” (S 447/ H 897), relate to the Quabbin Reservoir water being sent to eastern Massachusetts with little benefit to the Quabbin watershed towns that supply it. These towns also can’t access the water from the reservoir due to existing water transport infrastructure.

Monday’s discussion was organized by former state Rep. Denise Andrews. Comerford, D-Northampton, covered the four major components of the bills and provided context for their inclusion. She spoke about the two additional board seats that would be added to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) to increase western Massachusetts’ representation if the legislation is passed. This would bring the board up to 13 members.

“[Western Massachusetts] wanted to have more of a voice,” Comerford said. She explained the Quabbin region currently has little say on the MWRA board due to the lack of direct representation.

Comerford went on to explain how the payments in lieu of taxes — called PILOT payments — provided to communities based on the amount of land exposed to a water source does not count for the land underneath the water, meaning when the Quabbin Reservoir is experiencing higher water levels with less exposed land, that payment will be decreased. Comerford described this system as unjust, and is seeking to correct the payment system.

The third element that Comerford discussed was an excise fee of 5 cents per 1,000 gallons of water that would be placed on the Quabbin water when it is sent to other parts of the state. The money raised as part of this fee would amount to $3.5 million annually, which would come back to the 10 Quabbin watershed communities in an effort to create funding for a variety of purposes. Rather than a tax, Comerford said she sees this as the “cost of business” by the state for using the water and she believes this money should be placed back into the Quabbin communities that provide it.

The final element of the legislation that Comerford addressed on Monday is the proposed study of western Massachusetts waterways to understand if other potable water exists in the region. Comerford addressed some of the concerns that came out of this section of the bills, including if this will open up more potable water options for eastern Massachusetts to access.

Comerford explained that the MWRA has studied water east of Worcester, but an expansive study has not been done in western Massachusetts of other potable sources.

She elaborated on her concerns with a MWRA study proposed by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper following her visit to the Quabbin watershed to better understand if the Quabbin can serve western Massachusetts communities. Comerford has expressed her concerns on this study in a “My Turn” opinion column published by the Greenfield Recorder. At Monday’s meeting, Comerford reiterated that she feels this study is “not encompassing enough.” The study was authorized by the state and MWRA, but she still feels confident the bills will pass and a larger, encompassing study of western Massachusetts water will be done.

The $6.5 billion housing bond bill passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in June was also a topic Comerford touched on, for its inclusion of a $1 billion expansion of MWRA service areas that House Speaker Ron Mariano suggested be included. This bill is separate from Comerford’s Quabbin Reservoir water bill. Although she supports the bill for its housing plans that would benefit western Massachusetts, the inclusion of the MWRA expansion concerns her.

Constituents were then invited to participate in the discussion. Comerford received feedback on parts of her bill, including a suggestion that the two additional seats on the MWRA board be filled by residents of Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Comerford received some pushback on the excise fee of 5 cents per 1,000 gallons of water, which one constituent felt was not enough to compensate for the amount of water from the Quabbin going into eastern Massachusetts. She explained that this would be a starting amount, and the number could be revisited at a later time when the bill is reintroduced next year.

“I wanted to help characterize that cost in the bill and figure out a number that made some sense, but it is not a tax on water. It’s a cost of doing business,” Comerford said in a follow-up interview about this portion of the bill.

In reflecting on Monday’s discussion, Comerford said she’s pleased to see her constituents’ investment in this issue and their breadth of knowledge on the subject.

“I was so delighted with the turnout, and with the passion and the depth of knowledge in the room,” she added. “I’m always impressed by constituents, and last night was no exception.”

Erin-Leigh Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.



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