It's been a strange season out in the yard. Everything seems to be running a month early. The bridal veil bush bloomed in May, not June. The trumpet vine, which usually blooms in August, has been drawing hummingbirds to its orange flowers for weeks already.
It's been a strange season out in the yard.
Everything seems to be running a month early. The bridal veil bush bloomed in May, not June. The trumpet vine, which usually blooms in August, has been drawing hummingbirds to its orange flowers for weeks already.
The lawn, too, is well ahead of schedule, already brown and parched, thanks to the drought that followed the heavy spring floods that got all the plants off to such an early start.
There were torrential downpours last weekend in some places - more than 3 inches fell in Somerville in just a couple of hours - but not much here. We still had to water the garden. That's how it's been lately: it's either raining buckets or drying out.
Better get used to it, says Bob Zimmerman. This is what the climate change computer models have long predicted. Not just global warming, but, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls it, "global weirding."
Zimmerman, director of the Charles River Watershed Association, says this region historically could count on 45 inches of rainfall a year, spread consistently across the months. The new normal is predicted to be more than 60 inches a year, with more of it falling in the winter - as rain, not snow - and as intense, severe rains.
In 1996, eastern Massachusetts had what is classified as a 500-year storm, Zimmerman says. In 1998, we had a 100-year storm. In 2001 and 2002, we had 50-year storms.
"These are not 100 and 500-year storms anymore," Zimmerman says. Someone may have to reset the calibrations in place for decades.
Even where it fell, last weekend's deluge didn't do much to ease the underlying drought. It came down too fast, and washed quickly down storm drains and into rivers. Most towns around here have bans on outside watering, and they'll be with us all summer. Even with increased rainfall, municipal wells can't keep up with the demands of the suburban sprinkler systems.
For a century, we treated rainwater as a nuisance to get rid of, not a treasure to be carefully tended. We take it out of the aquifers beneath our feet and instead of letting it filter back down to replenish those aquifers, we pipe it to rivers and streams, and eventually out to sea.
This redistribution of water is most extreme under the Mass. Water Resources Authority, which takes more than 200 million gallons of water a day from Central Massachusetts, and when the residents of 43 cities and towns are done with it, processes it through the Deer Island treatment plant and pipes it 9.5 miles into the middle of Boston Harbor, with not a drop for the aquifers.
Then there's the stuff the rainwater picks up along the way to the rivers, which is Zimmerman's particular concern. Phosphorous, for instance, comes from car exhaust, lawn products and, among other sources, dishwasher suds. Too much phosphorous leads to an algae explosion, and too much algae can ruin a good swimming hole and suck the oxygen out of a lake or river. Hundreds of miles from its source, phosphorous is a culprit in creating huge "dead zones" in the world's oceans.
For years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been after cities and towns to reduce the amount of phosphorous in the Assabet River, forcing costly sewer plant upgrades.
The EPA also wants to clean up the Charles, which has 50 percent more phosphorus than is healthy. Under a program begun during the Bush administration, it is proposing a pilot project in three area towns - Milford, Franklin and Bellingham - to get property owners to stop phosphorous-laden rainwater from reaching the river.
Under the EPA's proposal, five wastewater treatment plants on the Upper Charles would be required to reduce the phosphorous they discharge. Every property owner with more than two acres of impervious surface - roofs, parking lots and driveways - would have to get an EPA permit conditioned on an individual plan to mitigate stormwater runoff. That might mean replacing some parking spaces with grass, building a retention pond, or maybe paying some nearby property owner to maintain a porous surface, through a "cap-and-trade" system.
The details are still being worked out. The EPA's public comment period on the proposal has been extended to Sept. 30, but the comments from officials and business owners in Milford, Franklin and Bellingham are already coming across loud and clear: They don't like it one bit.
While the estimated costs of these improvements are all over the map, and help from the feds or the state paying for these upgrades is still up in the air, any unfunded mandate is resented in the current economic climate. You can imagine an army of EPA bureaucrats descending on the shopping centers and industrial parks of MetroWest, with an army of lawyers and engineers at their side. Even if the goal is noble - and cleaning up New England's rivers certainly is - the process sounds like a royal pain. Also galling is the idea that Milford, Bellingham and Franklin have to pay while upscale, downstream communities like South Natick, Newton and Cambridge get the benefit.
It's been a strange summer. Al Roker says last month was the hottest June ever, not just here, but around the world. The local pond, usually still a refreshing spot for a swim this time of year, has that late-summer soupy quality. Seems like a bumper year for algae, too.
Like every summer, cities and towns are spending thousands of dollars treating their ponds with chemicals or sending out specially-designed boats to cut the weeds that tangle outboard motors and the feet of young swimmers. Nature wants to turn ponds into marshes, then meadows, a process we humans would prefer to stop.
Centuries ago, our forebears created many of these ponds, damming them so they could harness water power to fuel mills and factories. Many of those dams are no longer needed, and some are dangerous. Taking them down would be one way to tame the weeds and flush the phosphorous, but homeowners would rather border a lake than a mudpit or marsh, so they resist returning rivers to what we imagine is their natural state.
Besides, behind those dams hides the sediment left by a century of industrial discharges. Digging the toxic stuff out is ridiculously expensive and can leave the waterway uglier than it was before the heavy equipment rolled in.
Truth is, we New Englanders have been manipulating rivers and rainwater for centuries. Cleaning it up, and finding our way back to a sustainable water cycle, may take almost as long.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.