Quabbin; The valley where time went backward

Boston needed a bigger rain barrel.

As the 20th century dawned, rumors spread through the towns of Enfield, Dana, Prescott, and Greenwich that Bostonians were wetting their lips and casting a longing glance at their Swift River Valley. Eastern Massachusetts, its population swelling with each new wave of immigrants, was drinking dry the new Wachusett Reservoir just west of the city. A bigger supply was needed, one large enough to quench Boston's thirst for good.

To engineers looking at the problem, the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts offered a simple, yet dramatic, solution to the problem. If a massive dam were constructed at the southern end of the sparcely populated water-rich valley, they pointed out, the Ware and Swift Rivers would be bottled up. Eventually, two watery fingers - 18 miles long and 51 feet deep - would be formed, creating one of the largest man-made water supplies in the world, 412 billion gallons of water. A 24-mile underground aqueduct to Wachusetts Reservoir would mean Boston could sip all the water it would ever want through a giant straw more than 11 feet in diameter.

The argument convinced the Massachusetts legislature. In 1926 and 1927 it allotted $65 million for the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) to begin the project.

That was when the clock began running out for the Swift River Valley. Ironically, the clock now may be running out on the valley's present occupants - its fish and wildlife. Environmentalists are concerned that acid rain will destroy fish in the reservoir, upset the ecological balance, and pose a threat to the quality of the drinking water.

The growing squabble over the likely effects of acid rain at Quabbin contrasts sharply with the quiet eviction of the valley people half a century ago.

The townspeople, historians record, didn't put up much of an organized fight. It was not their way.

''They were essentially good, decent, religious folks,'' said Audrey Duckert, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She also serves as librarian of the Swift River Valley Historical Society. Professor Duckert says state officials played upon the unselfish nature of the valley residents. ''They were told: 'You can't deny water to your fellow man!' ''

Incidents of stubborn Yankee resistance followed, but they were never violent and somehow seemed as quaint as the towns themselves. One man from Dana stayed on past the deadline and woke one morning to find workers on the roof of his barn, beginning to tear it down. He went out and took away their ladder. A valley woman announced she would wait until the reservoir was filled, get her feet as dirty as possible, and then go wash them in Boston's drinking water.

''I can't think of anybody who left happily,'' said Professor Duckert, who has compiled a library of taped interviews with valley people. But leave they did - about 3,500 people, according to some estimates. The exact number is hard to determine: The threat of the flooding had been a barrier to development over the years and had sent people packing even before the official announcement. The 1925 census, for example, showed less than half as many residents in the valley as in 1850. When the depression arrived in the early 1930s, the offer of hard cash for homes and land was nearly irresistible.

To politicians, led by Boston Mayor James M. Curley, the opportunity to put a thousand men to work on the project during the depths of the depression was irresistible, too. Charges of assorted improprieties regularly appeared in the newspapers, including claims that profiteers were squeezing 25 cents from workers for a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee. Wages were a scandalously high 62.5 cents per hour.

According to one worker at the MDC's Boston headquarters, office rumors circulated about the poor performance of workers who were being paid ''$24 a week to sit on axes.'' Valley folks had their own reservations about the ''woodpeckers,'' as they called the strangers who came to cut the forests and tear down houses. ''The nicest thing they told me,'' said Miss Duckett, ''was that 'some of those guys didn't know one end of the axe from the other.' ''

But the work went on and in 1938 the last of the towns officially closed. The event was recorded in the Springfield (Mass.) Morning Union:

''The town of Enfield passed out of existence at the final stroke of the midnight hour.

''A hush fell over the Town Hall, jammed far beyond its ordinary capacity, as the first note of the clock sounded; a nervous tension growing throughout the evening had been felt by both present and former residents and casual onlookers.

''The orchestra, which had been playing for the firemen's ball throughout the evening, faintly sounded the strain of 'Auld Lang Syne' . . . muffled sounds of sobbing were heard, hardened men were not ashamed to take out their handkerchiefs.''

By 1946 the Quabbin was full and the Swift River Valley had disappeared. The valley had been literally taken right off of maps. And even though all the valley's buildings had been torn down and removed, rumors began that on a moonlit evening you could see the steeple of a church breaking the shimmering surface of the water. Perhaps inspired by these stories, Donald Howe wrote in ''Quabbin: the Lost Valley'':

''The minds and memories of former residents of the valley can still look deep down into the waters of Quabbin and still see their homes, the treasured spots where trysting and pledging of troth occurred, . . . the factories and places of business as well as their town meeting halls, and these appear as realistic as the days when they existed.''

Far-sighted residents expressed pride that something special would replace their valley. An Enfield woman wrote that it would become ''cup-bearer to all mankind'' - more an example of poetic license than prediction, although 1 out of every 100 Americans now drink from the pellucid waters of Quabbin.

A 1937 newspaper account described Quabbin as offering ''virtually unlimited and inexhaustible quantities of fresh, pure water from the central Massachusetts highlands to care for almost any conceivable growth in the teeming coastal cities and towns.'' Fourty-five years later that prediction is having a hard time holding water.

Questions have arisen about both the quantity and quality of Quabbin water. The first shortage came only 14 years after the reservoir was filled. In 1960 the MDC was forced to ask 30 cities and towns tapping the reservoir to conserve water. In 1965, during a particularly severe drought, the foundations of buildings began to reappear beneath the surface in the reservoir's shallower areas.

In recent years the water level has recovered. But plans to divert Connecticut River water or other nearby sources into Quabbin have been promoted now for more than a decade, only to meet strong opposition from environmentalists and others. Proponents argue that despite adequate supplies now, future economic growth depends on tapping more of the reservoir's potential as a rain barrel.

Opponents say Boston should first use the water it is receiving more wisely. They point to a 1979 study that showed the city could account for only a little more than 50 percent of the water it drew from Quabbin, with millions of gallons lost to leaky pipes each day. Other abandoned or reserve water sources could easily yield another 50 million gallons per day, they add. And with Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sitting only 10 miles upstream from one of the proposed new sources for Quabbin, the possibility of reactor spills entering the water supply is a serious threat, they say.

The MDC has been proud of the quality of Quabbin water over the years, water so clean that a fisherman (fishing is allowed in restricted areas) can dip a cup over the side for a drink. In 1978, Boston water ranked sixth cleanest in the nation among 113 water supplies tested for chemical contamination by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 118 square miles of protected Quabbin watershed provides a barrier that has protected its water from many sources of human pollution. Day hikers and fishermen are allowed access only under a set of strict rules laid down by the MDC.

Despite these cautions, there is mounting evidence that an airborne polluter, acid rain, which environmentalists argue is caused by smokestacks at Midwestern industrial plants, is endangering water quality at the reservoir.

For years the MDC could rightly claim that Quabbin was a gigantic, untreated pure water source. But in the late 1970s it began adding sodium hydroxide to the slightly acidic water coming from Quabbin to keep it from picking up lead from the old water pipes of Boston and some other communities.

The MDC admits to no current problems with the acidity of Quabbin water. Guy Foss, an MDC water department spokesman, says the pH level of the water, the measure of its acidity, has stayed relatively stable over the history of the reservoir at 6.3 to 6.5 pH.

The MDC and a consultant it has hired take weekly checks at several locations in the reservoir and periodic checks of its tributaries, Mr. Foss says. The MDC is ''concerned,'' he says, that acidity could become a future problem.

Others see the problem as more immediate. Tests done by the Water Resources Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst show that Quabbin's alkalinity, the measure of the water's capacity to absorb acid without changing its pH, has dropped from 15 parts per million (ppm) to less than 5 ppm in recent years. ''Alkalinity is the real ball game,'' said Dick Keller, who takes annual tests of Quabbin water for the state fish and wildlife service. At 3 to 5 ppm alkalinity, Mr. Keller says, fish in Quabbin would be considered endangered. Two ppm or less is considered critical, he says. Smaller ponds in the Quabbin area are already at that level.

''Quabbin seems to be in transition,'' agrees Alan Van Arsdale of the state's Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE). He, too, is concerned about a drop in the buffering capacity of the water. Mr. Van Arsdale says the Quabbin already has ''aggressive'' water that is susceptible to picking up heavy metals because of its acidity. ''You can always treat the water'' to remove these contaminants, he says, but the costs can be high.

Environmentalists are pointing to rising sulfate levels in Quabbin as one sign that acid rain is the culprit behind the changes. ''We're pretty confident (the changes) are due to acid rain,'' said Paul J. Godfrey, director of the Water Resource Research Center. ''We know the watershed neutralizes acid rain to an extent, but we don't know how much.''

Professor Godfrey says that once the buffering capacity of water drops too low, the pH can drop quickly. ''Quabbin is on the shoulder of that curve now,'' he warns.

If pH levels in the reservoir begin plunging, experts agree, it would be devastating to aquatic life. Already, fish yields are down. Last year, the 60, 000 fishing trips permitted on the reservoir landed 25 percent fewer rainbow trout than the year before, says Mr. Keller.

The Prescott Peninsula, between Quabbin's two fingers, has become a wilderness closed to man but home to a wide array of wildlife from birds small and large to beavers, otter, mink, bobcats, foxes, deer, and even the eastern coyote. But should fish populations die, the entire ecosystem would be disrupted. One loss, for example, would be the bald eagle, an endangered species whose preferred food is fish. A survey by the fish and wildlife service estimates 10 bald eagles spent last winter at Quabbin. But without a plentiful supply of fish, wildlife experts say, the bald eagle will never be more than an occasional visitor.

If that happens, the citizens of Enfield, Dana, Prescott, and Greenwich, who gave up their homes so that Bostonians could wash their cars and sprinkle their lawns, may have participated in only the first exodus from Quabbin.

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