Guest columnist Julia Blatt: Climate change affects everyone through water — even in Massachusetts


Published: 06-18-2023 10:36 AM

When we think of climate change, the first images that come to mind are of hot temperatures, melting ice caps, and greenhouse gases clogging the atmosphere. A recent report by the United Nations, however, warns that most people will actually experience the impacts of climate change through their interactions with water.

The U.N. report found: “The science is clear: the global climate change crisis is increasing variability in the water cycle, thus reducing the predictability of water availability and demand, affecting water quality, exacerbating water scarcity, and threatening sustainable development worldwide.”

That’s certainly true in Massachusetts. It’s not simply a matter of whether we can ski during the winter or go kayaking in the summer.

Drought in Massachusetts has become more frequent and more severe due to climate change. Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predict that droughts in our state will become worse. The 2016 drought had severe impacts: six public water suppliers petitioned MassDEP for water emergency declarations, the Quabbin Reservoir decreased by over 20%, and groundwater that supplies many towns’ drinking water declined.

The state’s economy is adversely affected. This winter highlighted the loss of snow cover for winter recreation facilities in the state. Additionally, in 2016, it is estimated that cranberry growers lost about a third of their harvest due to the drought.

Our aquatics industries also suffer, as rising water temperatures can lower oxygen levels and alter freshwater and marine ecosystems. Key ocean fisheries, such as cod and lobster south of Cape Cod, are expected to decline. The EPA warns that climate change may also pose challenges for the state’s agriculture. Some farms may be harmed if more hot days and drought reduce crop yield, or if more flooding and wetter springs delay planting dates.

Less water available for agriculture affects the rest of us as well. According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts farmers are irrigating crops more due to decreased precipitation, higher temperatures, and lower soil moisture. This need for more water not only increases consumer costs at local stores — it costs farmers more to run pumps and sprinklers, and further depletes groundwater used for our water supplies.

Most people think of California and the arid West when picturing wildfires. In Massachusetts, however, fires are becoming more widespread and severe. During last year’s  drought, for example, approximately 905 wildfires were reported through August, according to the state’s Department of Fire Services, burning an estimated 1,485 acres. The month of August saw 137 wildfires across the state, a nearly six-fold increase over the previous year. The resulting destruction of vegetation and tree cover exacerbates soil erosion and reduces groundwater recharge, increasing water scarcity and food insecurity.

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The impact of climate change on the state’s rivers is dramatic. In the summer of 2022, many rivers, including parts of the Blackstone in Central Massachusetts and the Ipswich on the North Shore, were transformed from flowing water into disconnected puddles, unfit places for fish or turtles to live and virtually impossible for canoes and kayaks to navigate. Streams flowing into the Charles and Neponset rivers were the driest on record, and other rivers dried up entirely.

The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, composed of 87 groups across the state protecting our rivers and streams, joins the United Nations in warning that “the global climate change crisis is inextricably linked to water.” We in Massachusetts are also now experiencing this crisis, and this week the state’s environmental secretary announced that parts of the state are now officially in drought.

“Business as usual” is no longer an option and, whether at the local, state, national, or international level, water management must be scrutinized through a climate lens.

Julia Blatt is executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, a state nonprofit organization with 87 member groups and over 1,000 individual supporting members.