Massachusetts Food System Collaborative
Massachusetts Food System Collaborative

Inputs: Goal 3

Sufficient supplies of clean water will be available for food system needs, and water pollution will be reduced.

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.

Recommendation 3.1: Research existing and anticipated water needs for maintaining and growing the food system.

Action 3.1.1: Develop a baseline for how much water is currently being used by the agricultural sector, research likely future needs given projections related to climate change, and target policies based on research findings.

Recommendation 3.2: Provide increased incentives and technical assistance to farmers and other food system businesses for adopting water conservation practices.

Action 3.2.1: Develop and disseminate guidelines on voluntary on-farm water conservation best practices.

Action 3.2.2: Provide the resources and technical assistance needed to help farmers adapt to increased impacts from flooding, drought, and other expected impacts of climate change.

Action 3.2.3: Increase utilization of USDA-NRCS’ EQIP funds by allowing regionally-appropriate practices and providing assistance with the application process.

Action 3.2.4: Increase municipal solutions for more water conservation, including targeted property owner and homeowner education, in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Action 3.2.5: Provide technical assistance to food processors on water conservation practices and technologies.

Action 3.2.6: Ensure water conservation practices are called for in lease agreements for State- and town-owned land used for agriculture.

Action 3.2.7: Create demonstration areas or pilot projects where cisterns or other water catchment systems are incorporated into the farm landscape and farming system, particularly in urban environments. Provide technical assistance to size the water harvesting devices and incentives or grants for incorporating water harvesting techniques.

Recommendation 3.3: Reduce water pollution from the food system, especially through incentives and increased technical assistance.

Action 3.3.1: Expand research to identify and fill gaps in the literature about the level of non-point source water pollution that agricultural activities can generate.

Action 3.3.2: Provide more resources and introduce regionally-appropriate program reforms to improve water quality. The NRCS, UMass Extension, and nonprofits should provide additional technical assistance and resources.

Action 3.3.3: Provide technical and financial support to farmers for irrigation and waste water testing, to assist in compliance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations and USDA’s Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification.

Action 3.3.4: Provide more technical support to urban farmers on water quality impacts from urban farming.

Action 3.3.5: Include a representative from the urban farming sector on the USDA-NRCS’ State Technical Committee to represent the particular needs of the Massachusetts urban farming sector.

Action 3.3.6: Research the impact that urban agriculture has on stormwater runoff reduction and treatment.

Action 3.3.7: Develop a model ordinance to exempt urban farms from sewerage fees.

Action 3.3.8: Streamline water connection requirements for urban farms, eliminating unnecessary requirements and reducing connection costs.

Action 3.3.9: Change municipal ordinances to allow and encourage water catchment systems and other green infrastructure on urban farms.

Action 3.3.10: Consider changes to MassDEP’s Groundwater Discharge Permitting regulations that would exempt farms from needing a groundwater discharge permit for farm waste provided they adhere to MDAR and USDA-NRCS best practices.

Action 3.3.11: MassDEP and MDAR should continue to implement the “Regulatory Certainty” effort.

[1] UMass Amherst. (2015). Massachusetts Agricultural Census 2012. Accessed October 2015 from

[2] UMass Amherst. (2015). Massachusetts Agricultural Census 2012. Accessed October 2015 from

[3] MA EOEEA.(2012). Massachusetts Sustainable Water Management Initiative: Framework Summary, November 28, 2012. Accessed October 2015 from

[4] MA EOEEA and the Adaptation Advisory Committee. (2011). Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report. Accessed October 2015 from

Back to Inputs section page | Back to Plan homepage

Massachusetts Food System Collaborative