Keep mountain bikers away from the state’s precious watershed land

In 2014, the American Waterworks Association declared the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s water to be the best in the nation (in fact, it won both first and second place both for the city of Boston’s and the authority’s own sample). This was not a lucky coincidence, but the result of a carefully crafted and intricate plan to protect, treat, and distribute water to the service area’s ratepayers.

A direct offshoot of a federal court’s decision to allow the MWRA and the state Department of Recreation and Conservation to avoid building a water filtration system was the development of a three-tier – or as it was dubbed at the time a “three-Legged stool” – approach to assuring potable water to 2.2 million consumers in the Commonwealth.

The first “leg” was an aggressive watershed protection plan encircling the Quabbin, Ware, and Wachusett Reservoirs. It called for the acquisition of lands to insulate the reservoirs. Since 1986, the MWRA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire such lands, and has bolstered DCR watershed staffing and administration to the tune of $25 million per year.

The second “leg” was the construction of the Carroll Water Treatment Plant and covered storage throughout the distribution system – at a cost of $500 million.

The third “leg” was to work with our communities to improve and replace their distribution systems. The MWRA has provided more than $200 million in interest-free loans to our communities to reline or replace old water service mains. Led by the request and a vote of the Advisory Board, the MWRA has since added $100 million in interest-free loans to eliminate lead in local systems.

All of this was done to provide the best drinking water to our communities and to avoid additional layers of cost to build a water filtration plant. And it is working.

Why would we risk it?
As part of its watershed management plan, DCR has established clear rules and regulations that allow for passive recreational use of watershed lands – activities such as hiking, which do not jeopardize these protected waters. Activities that may endanger this protection have been clearly, and strictly, prohibited.

In recent years, however, mountain bikers have begun encroaching upon the watersheds. Moreover, some have begun altering those lands for their own purposes by cutting trees and building structures to facilitate this illicit use of watershed lands.

Mountain bikers have been aggressively pushing for a change in regulations to utilize watershed lands for bike trails. Up until now the answer has been a loud and decisive “No.”

But, according to the Worcester Telegram, “after years of pushback, repeated rejections, and heavy enforcement, mountain bikers seeking access to the single-track trails in the Ware River watershed have recently found a state official to hear their plea.”

First, anyone currently using the watershed lands for mountain biking is engaging in illicit activity, so state officials are well within their rights to actively enforce this prohibition. Second, while many people enjoy mountain biking, the fact remains that the primary purpose of these lands is protecting drinking water for millions of residents.

The Slippery Slope
Once you say “yes” to mountain biking in the watershed, what about snowmobiles? ATVs? Why aren’t horses allowed? How about swimming? If you can do it in the Ware watershed, why not at the Quabbin? Heck, what about the Wachusett?

My point is that once you blur the difference between watershed lands and recreational parkland you have ultimately eliminated your natural water protection filter. Simply say “no.” Mountain biking is a highly enjoyable activity for many people. DCR is absolutely the right agency to create trails for mountain bikers to enjoy; however, watershed lands are absolutely the wrong place for these activities.

With all the national concern over water quality and local issues around the recent severe drought, this is not the time to fiddle around with something that is working. Let’s find mountain bikers, et al., appropriate trails outside of our watershed.

Joe Favaloro is the executive director of the MWRA Advisory Board.