Forecast for the single 'rainbelt'; The water glutton may go thirsty

There's a sad significance to the fact that one of New York City's three major reservoirs was named ''Neversink.'' As far as its water level is concerned , the reservoir hasn't lived up to its name. Neversink and its sister supplies, Pepacton and Cannonsville, are approaching drought-warning level for the second time in a year. The effect of low water at these reservoirs trickles down through the four states that tap the Delaware River for water.

That the reservoir's name suggests endless supply characterizes the Northeast's historically casual attitude toward its water resources.

The West, on the other hand, has known all along that its fertile farmland is merely a mask for the desert. Billions of federal dollars have been poured into dams, river diversions, and irrigation projects, without which the semiarid land - with its farms, homes, and luxury resorts - could return to dust.

But if growing forces in the North have their way, water money to the West could be tapped to help avoid an impending water crunch from Maine to Maryland.

Silver Lake in Brockton, Mass., is 267 inches - about the height of a two-story house - below normal. The water level is dropping at the rate of half an inch per day, and if the level drops another 33 inches, the top of the pumps will become exposed. If the level dips to 315 inches below normal, all industry will be shut down; at 325 inches, water restriction devices will be placed in every home to limit the flow to one gallon per minute. (At that rate, it will take 15 minutes to flush a toilet.) No new houses are being built in Brockton. There is a year-long moratorium on building permits and new water hookups.

Bert Porter, a semiretired local resident, taps water from five rain gutters into four 32-gallon plastic barrels and two 55-gallon metal drums. These days you can't find metal drums in Brockton - Bert got the last two at the store. The caches of rainwater, combined with bath and laundry rinse water, are barely enough to support his gardening hobby. A $200 fine for lawn watering and all outside water use has been in effect for a year.

The water problems faced by the 95,000 residents of Brockton and New York City's 7 million are only a hint of what experts say is yet to come for the Northeast - the nation's water glutton.

The area uses a lot of water perhaps because it has a lot of water. Dense populations and large water-consuming industries such as tanneries, paper mills, and power companies grew up around cheap, ample water. And despite the much-talked-of population flight to the Sunbelt, economic and population growth beyond the turn of the century is expected to place heavy demands on the region's water.

Talk of drought in the ''Rainbelt'' makes Westerners snicker. The Northeast has more rainfall than much of the inhabited Earth - an average of 40 inches a year. The region is splendidly endowed with thousands of lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands. Under the layers of clay, sand, and rock - the farmer's nemesis - lie hundreds of aquifers, seemingly bottomless pockets of water that meet many towns' needs.

But water shortages here are not a laughing matter. In fact, many experts say that, like the energy crunch, the squandering of water supplies could produce an all-too-familiar scenario of price increases, increased conservation, and -rationing of supplies in coming decades.

At the heart of New England's potential water shortage are three problems, the first of which is not water quantity, but poor water quality: the chemical contamination of underground supplies from hazardous waste and the killing of thousands of surface water supplies from acid rain.

The second problem is the "infrastructure,'' the crusty, leaky urban plumbing that distributes supplies to thirsty cities and towns. Perhaps as much as 50 percent of Boston's water is lost through leaky pipes or unaccounted for because of a lack of water meters.

The third stumbling block is money. Most Northeastern cities are spreading themselves thin just to keep public schools open and buses running, much less devote funds to what is generally seen as a future problem, if a problem at all.

Some experts predict a water crunch that will leave the Northeast as lifeless as its acid-dead lakes. They prophesy an atrophied economy, stifled by a reduced capacity to support industrial water needs, and an age where residents will have to adapt to severely reduced water supplies.

Others predict prosperity in the Northeast that will make the current Sunbelt boom look like a county fair. They say that as water in the West and Midwest dries up (the mammoth High Plains aquifer which provides crop water for much of the Midwest is expected to run dry within 20 years), the Northeast will become, if not a ''water exporter'' to parched areas, then at least the center for the types of economic and social activity requiring ready access to water.

Whether the area becomes a victim or victor of its water problems depends largely on decisions being made in this decade.

While Western water projects are managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation , which serves the ''17 Western states,'' most decisions regarding water use and methods of distribution in the East are made not on the federal, regional, or state level, but by cities and towns. Possessiveness of local supplies and envy of others' supplies often stymie regional cooperation among water managers.

Dr. David Marks, of the Parsons Laboratory for Water Resources and Environmental Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says once-water-rich communities are being forced to swallow their pride and approach their neighbors for help. Dr. Marks says ''interconnections'' - water sharing - between towns with good ground water supplies and those with ample surface water supplies is an idea whose time has come.

Towns perched upon a healthy underground aquifer have, until recently, taken for granted their water richness, while for years, nearby surface water users have battled air and water pollution. Now both have significant, and expensive, problems.

In New Jersey, and parts of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, contamination of ground water supplies by the careless disposal of hazardous nuclear and chemical waste is perhaps the greatest environmental hazard ever to be faced. Yet Dr. Marks says officials are often reluctant to release findings about suspected or known sources of contamination. ''It's very political,'' he explains. ''They can't identify some chemical that's going to knock out somebody's water supply when there's no alternative source and no way to treat the water.''

Just when enormous progress is finally starting to be realized in cleaning up industrial contamination of surface water, there looms another enemy: acid rain. Scientists stop just short of fistfights over the question of how harmful acid rain is. (Acid rain collected in Massachusetts has been found to be as acidic as vinegar.) Both sides have mountains of scholarly evidence to back their theories. But it is generally agreed that emissions from coal-burning industries and utilities in the Midwest are the primary source of the pollution which falls as acid rain in the Northeast.

The effects of acid rain on drinking water are not fully understood yet. But Robert Cross, of New York Gov. Hugh Carey's task force, says high acidity could dissolve the lead in water-carrying pipes and leach from the soil trace minerals important to plant growth. It could also accumulate in toxic amounts in ground water.

A further threat to surface water is runoff from road salts and agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, and so-called ''saltwater intrusion'' into freshwater supplies. Preventing salt water from slipping up the tidal Delaware River and ruining municipal supplies in the crowded suburb of Camden, N.J., is a full-time juggling act, requiring stored water upstream in New York to be released in measured amounts to prevent intrusion.

One water expert says future water supply and demand is best expressed not in gallons, but in dollars: the amount needed to fix old sewers, dams, man-made reservoirs, valves, pipes, and conduits.

''We're going to wake up one day and realize that our water systems are hundreds of years old . . . that they are made up of hollowed out logs under (Boston's) Beacon Hill,'' MIT's Dr. Marks says. ''In the West, drought means no rainfall. The East Coast problem is just the opposite - there's no way in the short term to get the water.''

The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, which was formed to balance what was seen as heavy muscle by the Sunbelt lobby, is pressing for funds for infrastructure improvement. The coalition is attempting to pursuade Congress that the Northeast's water needs are just as pressing as the Southwest's. Andy Lang, spokesman for the coalition, says older cities have no money for water projects because of their declining tax bases.

Whether or not rainfall increases from the low levels of the past years (which meteorologists say it will); whether or not federal funds for the Northeast come through; and regardless of whether environmentalists can put the brakes on hazardous pollution and acid rain, the key to adequate water supplies for the rest of the century is conservation.

In all but the communities such as Brockton, where serious shortages have forced periodic conservation, there is little incentive to cut down on water use. Although water-rich Boston pays twice as much for its supplies as does water-poor Phoenix, Ariz. (because of federal subsidies), the price - an average effects on consumption would be felt. Dr. Marks says that only when supplies are threatened will consumers cut down.

A Brockton water official told him, ''You have to let people not be able to wash their cars and watch their lawns go belly up'' before public support for better water resources can be mobilized.

Likening the water problem to the petroleum shortage, Dr. Marks says that the technologies required - to clean up pollution, to transport water, to help conserve water - are available, whenever the public realizes the need to use them. ''The energy problem wasn't really a technological one, either,'' he explains. ''We've achieved near (oil) independence, not through any big technological change, but through conservation.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.