Unlike California and its historic drought, Massachusetts currently receives sufficient precipitation to meet most needs. As a result, Massachusetts has so far not had to deal with severe droughts and the political disputes and legal challenges over water allocations and water rights that can accompany such situations. Although the Massachusetts receives sufficient precipitation for our current needs, irrigation is playing an increased role in Massachusetts agriculture, with the number of farms using irrigation doubling between 1974 and 2012.1 The cranberry bogs in Plymouth County, in particular, account for the majority of lands irrigated.2 With nursery and greenhouse crops increasing, UMass Extension expects to see increasing amounts of irrigation. In addition, water is essential for several parts of food processing, and a significant quantity of water is used for washing, cleaning, running equipment, and sanitizing food processing facilities.
Despite the State’s positive situation relative to water availability, there are warning signs and concerns about scarcity and hard-to-manage excess in future years. Massachusetts has three basins or sub-basins – the Ipswich, Tenmile, and Weymouth & Weir – where water withdrawals are approaching the safe yield limit, which basins must not exceed in order to maintain sustainable water levels for human and ecological needs.3 And the expected impacts from climate change and more frequent and severe storm events could result in a cycle of too much precipitation at times, followed by periods of drought. Coupled with higher overall temperatures and increased evaporation rates,4 additional irrigation may be needed to maintain current production and current crops.
Human activities directly and indirectly impact the natural environment. Farming and land management practices are no exception. Because farmland covers a significant amount of the Commonwealth’s land, what happens on a farm affects neighboring water bodies, habitats, and ecological systems. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, compost, and manure can find their way into surface and groundwater and can cause water pollution.
Of course, the food system is just one source of water impacts. Others include municipalities, industrial processes, the transportation network, septic systems, lawn care products, and pet waste, which are all sources of pollution that affect human and environmental health. While great strides have been made to reduce point source pollution (that can be traced to a pipe), non-point sources (like fertilizer runoff) are diffuse and, historically, less regulated.
Any new regulatory approaches to addressing non-point source pollution must be equitable in how they are applied in order to ensure that farmers do not disproportionately bear the burden for improving water quality. Technical assistance must be provided to help regulated entities prepare for and comply with new and existing regulations. Recognizing the environmental benefits that farms provide is important, as is providing incentives, support, and guidance on how even greater benefits can be realized through land stewardship and effective management practices. See Land: Goal 4 for more information and related recommendations.