Bill would compensate towns harmed by creation of Quabbin Reservoir

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 04-27-2023 4:57 PM

BOSTON — Four towns were disincorporated and dismantled, and another eight had land stripped from them, to create the Quabbin Reservoir in the first half of the 20th century.

People were forced to find new homes and the valley was flooded with water, mostly from the Swift River, so it could flow through underground aqueducts for clean drinking water in the Boston area. Residents who had to relocate were paid fair-market value for their property and the region has received minimal compensation for their continued efforts and sacrifice since then.

But a bill filed in both chambers of the state Legislature aims to change that.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Aaron Saunders, D-Belchertown, have introduced legislation to foster greater regional equity and provide for reasonable payments to Quabbin watershed communities for local municipal needs.

“It corrects a historical inequity for the Quabbin region,” Saunders said Wednesday afternoon, “so that the water — the valuable resource that is extracted from our region — has some financial benefits for the towns and the communities that steward that water.”

Saunders and Comerford had earlier in the afternoon advocated for their bill at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, where it has been filed. If passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, the law would provide for payments to Quabbin watershed communities for water infrastructure, such as conduits, pipes and hydrants, and to nonprofits providing health, welfare, safety and transit services in the region. It also would require more Quabbin representation on the board of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority by adding two Connecticut River Valley seats and expanding the board so three of 13 board members call western Massachusetts home.

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“The Quabbin Reservoir provides life for eastern Massachusetts, allows the eastern part of the state to grow and expand, and yet — for far too long — the recompense for the towns that steward this water has been a pittance relative to its value,” Comerford told the committee. “For too long Massachusetts has taken from its four western counties — water and food, even as we maintain open space and reservoirs that sink carbon and breathe for us — without fully grappling with the cost of maintaining these treasures. Without justice for what these communities have lost and continue to give up. Without care for our arrested economic development, our potable water issues, our sacrifice to keep that water clean, our lasting trauma.”

The law would establish a five-cent fee for every 1,000 gallons drawn from the Quabbin to be placed in a new Quabbin Host Community Development Trust Fund. This, Saunders said, would cost Boston ratepayers an average of six cents per month and generate an estimated $3.5 million annually for distribution to municipalities and nonprofits in the Quabbin watershed.

Comerford also noted the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s watershed payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program compensates communities that have DCR property specifically for water supply protection. She said Belchertown, Hardwick, New Salem, Pelham Petersham and Ware — six towns that absorbed land from the disincorporated Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott — receive PILOT payments for the annexed parcels within their borders, but payment is based on the so-called “high-water mark” for land now occupied by the reservoir, which is the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts. Even as the water level declines, Comerford said, the payments are based on the historical water level, and there is no compensation for the land under the water. Passage of this bill would remove this provision.

At the hearing in Boston, Comerford held up a glass of “Quabbin water.” She said 200 million gallons of it flows into eastern Massachusetts each day and approximately 3 million people drink it.

Comerford also mentioned the cruel irony of Swift River School in New Salem not having access to Quabbin water. She said the students, faculty and staff drink from plastic bottles as the local school committees figure out how to remove PFAS6, a set of six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used in common consumer products, from its well water.

Quabbin Reservoir’s history

The Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed 776 buildings across 65 acres in two days, killing at least 13 people and causing $60 million of personal property loss. This disaster sparked a discussion about how the city was in need of better access to water. The Quabbin region was ideal because it averaged 44 inches of annual rainfall and there are hundreds of small streams flowing into the valley.

Dale Monette, reservoir historian and retired DCR employee, has said that 1,100 structures, including 650 homes, were removed for the reservoir, displacing 2,500 people. Property was taken by eminent domain if homeowners refused to sell their houses to the state for fair-market value. Anyone with a business in one of the towns received no compensation for it. An act of the state Legislature disincorporated Dana, Prescott, Enfield and Greenwich on April 28, 1938, almost exactly 85 years before Wednesday’s hearing.

Thirty-four cemeteries, consisting of 7,613 graves, were removed, as were 31½ miles of railroad. Thirty-six miles of highway were relocated and 242 miles were abandoned. Twenty-six people died during the reservoir’s construction and Monette said not much is known about those people, though he has heard one man was killed when a truck backed into him while men were working around the clock on the reservoir.

Construction began in 1936, with filling commencing on Aug. 14, 1939. It was completed in 1946, when water first flowed over the spillway. The reservoir now consists of 412 billion gallons of water and covers 39 square miles, with 181 miles of shoreline, according to the state’s website.

South Hadley, Wilbraham and Chicopee also get water from the reservoir.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or
413-930-4120.

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