On Beacon Hill: Officials tighten Worcester, area water restrictions as drought envelops state

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From State House News Service

ON THE AGENDA

  • As drought widens, Worcester water ban gets tighter
  • Videos: State, city and weather officials talk next steps vs. drought
  • Discovery of trackside body delays Worcester-bound train
  • Tax amnesty program leads to $137M state windfall
  • Worcester Fire’s Safe Cooking Program among federal grant recipients

TOP OF THE HILL

Officials tighten Worcester, area water restrictions as drought envelops state

Restaurants in Worcester and Holden can no longer serve tap water to diners unless specifically asked to do so, a result of those Central Massachusetts communities ratcheting up water-use restrictions in the face of a deepening drought.

The Worcester Department of Public Works and Parks moved the city to a “Stage 3 Drought Emergency” on Thursday, and implemented additional water-use restrictions “in order to assure the long-term availability of water to meet the critical health, safety and economic needs of the city,” DPW&P Commissioner Paul J. Moosey wrote to City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr.

The reservoir system that Worcester, Holden, Paxton and parts of West Boylston rely on for drinking water was 55.1 percent full as of Sept. 1, Moosey wrote. The Sept. 1 average is 81.7 percent full.

Drought Management Task Force members -- co-chair and Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' assistant director of water policy, Vandana Rao, left; Energy and Environmental Secretary Matthew Beaton, center; and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin Suuberg -- met Thursday and received an update on drought conditions from various state and federal agencies.

Antonio Caban / State House News Service

Drought Management Task Force members — co-chair and Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ assistant director of water policy, Vandana Rao, left; Energy and Environmental Secretary Matthew Beaton, center; and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin Suuberg — met Thursday and received an update on drought conditions from various state and federal agencies.

Residents in those communities are also banned from all outdoor watering, except for using a watering can to water plants by hand, and are prohibited from using water to wash cars, clean driveways, decks, sidewalks or filling swimming pools, the city said.

More than two months since Massachusetts’ official drought declaration, the task force charged with guiding the state’s response on Thursday recommended the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs boost its conservation efforts in two parts of the state because of worsening conditions, and a forecast for more dry weather.

The Drought Management Task Force recommended that Energy and Environment Secretary Matthew A. Beaton of Shrewsbury move the southeastern part of the state from the “watch” category into the “warning” category, and shift Cape Cod and the islands from “advisory” to “watch.” The task force recommended keeping the other regions of the state in their current categories.

Massachusetts has been under its own official drought declaration since July 1 and the arid conditions have been blamed for contributing to wild fires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, smaller-than-usual apples, loss of crops, and an elevated population of mosquitoes able to carry West Nile virus.

“I don’t care what part of the state you’re from, we are at an unprecedented level of drought for Massachusetts,” Beaton said. “Every corner of the state is feeling it at some level, some more than others.”

[Article continues after video.]


VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Worcester-area drought worsens: State, weather officials talk next steps


Some advocates from watershed groups said the state is not moving quickly enough to address the problems posed by the drought and to push water conservation messages.

“What’s very frustrating about this discussion in general is our streams are really dry all over the state of Mass. and have been since July. For us, this really feels like we’re already in an emergency from the point of view of rivers,” said Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “There isn’t really much we can do about the weather, but what we can do is change our non-essential water use.

“But until there is an emergency declared by the state, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between advisory and warning,” Blatt said.

Some parts of the state saw near-normal levels of rainfall during August and streamflows began to rebound in Central and Western Massachusetts, according to Jonathan Yeo, of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Office of Water Resources. “Generally though, it was not good. It did not get us out of the drought at all and things worsened in the eastern part of the state,” he said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration among federal government agencies and educational institutions, on Thursday morning released its latest drought-classification map, which showed little change since last week’s update. Nearly a quarter of the state’s area — including the most populous parts of the state — remain in the “extreme drought” category, and another 54.7 percent of the state is classified as being in a “severe drought.”


Watch: City Manager Augustus announces more water restrictions (courtesy city of Worcester)


The next meeting of the Drought Management Task Force is planned for the first week of October. National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham told task force members not to expect much rainfall before then.

“Basically only looking for a tenth to maybe up to as much as half an inch of precipitation now through Sept. 14,” Dunham said.

Forecasting models show “equal chances” of above- and below-average rainfall amounts for the second half of the month, Dunham said.

“We need a nice slow-moving system that’s actually moving, unlike Hermine, to give us two to three days of nice, steady rain,” he said, “and I just don’t see that happening right now.”

— Colin A. Young


IN THE NEWS

Discovery of trackside body delays late-night Worcester-bound commuter train

The discovery of a body alongside commuter rail tracks near Boston University late Tuesday night led to a roughly three-hour delay for a Worcester-bound train, according to Keolis Commuter Services, the commuter rail operator.

About 10 minutes after the train’s 11:30 p.m. departure from South Station, the crew discovered a body on the tracks in Boston and called the police, who were there by about 11:50 p.m., according to Keolis.

The body, found along a portion of tracks underneath the Massachusetts Turnpike, was that of a man approximately 18 years old who was trespassing and had been struck by a train, according to the MBTA Transit Police.

[The body was that of a Boston University student, according to reports.]

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo told State House News Service the 11:30 p.m. train to Worcester was not believed to have been involved in the individual’s death. Though reports, including from the linked article above, have stated the victim was “apparently” struck and killed by the Worcester-bound train.

According to Keolis, the train was cleared to continue onward at 2:38 a.m. and departed the scene about 10 minutes later. The train, which had close to 40 passengers on board, according to Keolis, was originally scheduled to arrive in Worcester at 1 a.m.

— Andy Metzger


$14M in waived penalties helps net $137M in back taxes for state

The state recovered nearly $137 million in unpaid taxes from more than 9,000 people through the Department of Revenue’s two-month tax amnesty program this year, surpassing the program’s goal of collecting $100 million in owed taxes.

Massachusetts State House

Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House

In a report to the Legislature, DOR said it collected $136,826,624 in back taxes between April 1 and May 31, and that it waived $13,964,345 in penalties to induce tax scofflaws to come forward and pay what they owed.

Of the owed money collected, about $73 million came from people who did not file their tax returns with the state and another $54.6 million came from taxpayers who under-reported the amount they owed, DOR said.

“This program was designed to reach taxpayers who could not participate in other recent amnesties, specifically non-registrants, non-filers, and under-reporters,” Revenue Commissioner Michael Heffernan wrote in the report.

Corporate taxes accounted for $45.4 million of the taxes collected through the amnesty program, the largest share, and the state reclaimed $40.6 million in financial institution and insurance taxes, according to DOR. Unpaid sales taxes counted for $23.3 million of the amount collected and personal income taxes collected totaled $18.3 million, the department said.

Amnesty was not available to individuals or businesses that have been the subject of a tax-related criminal investigation or prosecution, who had filed a false or fraudulent return or statement, or who filed a fraudulent amnesty return.

— Colin A. Young


McGovern touts Worcester’s $173k FEMA fire prevention grant

Release from the Office of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren [Sept. 9]

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, along with Reps. Richard E. Neal, James P. McGovern, and Niki Tsongas announced Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded four fire departments in Massachusetts $2.6 million in grants through the Staffing for Adequate & Fire Emergency Response (SAFER) and the Fire Prevention & Safety (FP&S) programs.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern

Office of Congressman Jim McGovern

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern

SAFER grants are awarded to support the hiring of trained, “front line” firefighters in communities and FP&S grants are awarded to support projects that enhance the safety of the public and of firefighters.

The FEMA fire grants awarded Friday to Massachusetts fire departments include:

  • $173,131 FP&S grant to the Worcester Fire Department for a safe-cooking fire prevention program;
  • $1,245,940 SAFER grant to the Holyoke Fire Department to fill 10 positions vacated by attrition;
  • $1,122,864 SAFER grant to the Pittsfield Fire Department to hire four new firefighters and to fill four positions vacated by attrition;
  • $96,439 SAFER grant to the Tyngsborough Fire Department to fund a call/volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention program.

“Massachusetts firefighters put their lives on the line to keep our families safe, and they deserve our thanks and our support,” Warren said. “I’m very glad that these federal grants will help ensure that our fire departments have the staff and resources they need to serve our communities safely and effectively.”

“Our community in Worcester is safer thanks to Chief (Geoffrey) Gardell and our local firefighters. The Safe-Cooking Program is a great community partnership that helps the Worcester Fire Department educate local residents about fire safety in the kitchen,” McGovern said.

“I am grateful to FEMA for providing this funding that will help to continue this important program and keep Worcester seniors and other local residents safe at home,” he said.

More information about FEMA’s fire grant programs is available here.

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