That dirty water

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 11, 2007

To appreciate the effect the DEP might have had, had it not been ignoring this mandate, simply look at what it has accomplished under the same law on the few bits of land it did not exempt, which sits directly on the waterfront. All you need do is stroll along the Rowes Wharf public walkway. That walkway, the plaza, the marina, the arched opening to the street — all were added to the design before the DEP would issue the license for construction of the Boston Harbor Hotel.

There are plenty of other examples — on the Harbor, along the Charles River, at North River in Salem, and elsewhere.

But the DEP has not done the same for development on other lands, including the contentious North Point plans on the Cambridge/Somerville/Boston line, which prompted the recent SJC decision. Nor has it done so for development throughout Boston. “We wouldn’t have the groundwater problem we have in Boston today, if we had had environmental regulation for the last 17 years,” says Marty Walz, state representative from the Back Bay.

And the DEP wasn’t planning to play a role in upcoming projects, such as Harvard University’s expansion — most of which will be built on filled tideland — or development underway and planned throughout the Fenway.

Mayor in charge
So far, Menino’s City-State Groundwater Working Group has been a remarkable success, resisting the usual plagues of cost arguments, turf issues, pressure from developers, and simple lethargy.

It’s been a great 18 months, people say. But what happens in five years, or 20?

“The issue of solving groundwater depletion in Boston is one that will require constant ongoing vigilance,” says James W. Hunt, Menino’s chief of environment and energy. “I think we have that today, and I’m confident we will maintain that.”

Hunt says state DEP oversight would add unnecessary bureaucracy — “essentially another Zoning Board of Appeals,” as he testified last week in support of Patrick’s bill.

But not everyone shares Hunt’s optimism. And many charge that control is Menino’s true motivation for resisting state involvement. “Menino doesn’t want the state regulating his city,” says one state legislator.

By forcing the issue two years ago, Menino put all the strings in his own hands. The BRA, which works for him, controls special licensing on the Groundwater Conservation Overlay District, created in 2005. The City-State Groundwater Working Group, which meets quarterly, is co-chaired by Menino’s man Hunt. And in 2002, Menino revived the defunct Boston Groundwater Trust, but brought it into City Hall, put his own appointees on the board, and funded it through the city.

To Menino’s credit, it’s likely that such monolithic control was necessary, after so many years of negligence and finger-pointing among the different agencies.

But what happens when Menino leaves office, or loses interest, or — as many fear — developers use their influence to weaken BRA enforcement?

“This patchwork that’s working right now, there’s nothing to ensure that it will stay together,” says Gordon Richardson, executive director of Citywide Groundwater Emergency Taskforce (Citywide-GET). “That’s a very thin thread on which to hang this entire issue in perpetuity.”

Which is why a group of legislators are fighting hard to replace Patrick’s DEP bill with a new, comprehensive oversight bill. Meanwhile, Richardson’s Citywide-GET plans to release a proposal, as soon as next month, for a state-level strategy on groundwater oversight.

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Click here to read the response from Ian Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
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