Here's to Undevelopment
We usually talk about some beautiful place, natural phenomenon or wildlife species in Forest Journal, but today I'd like to tell you about somewhere NOT beautiful -- at least not yet.
That place is a 2.5-acre plot in Auburn, just east of Manchester. Most importantly, it’s next to Sucker Brook and Lake Massabesic, the drinking water supply for Manchester and six nearby towns. The land previously hosted a welding business and associated junkyard scraps. There’s a paved parking lot and some buildings, several fuel storage tanks and industrial trash in the process of being removed.
Zoned commercial, this lot could have been divided into two high-priced lots and redeveloped. Instead, it will be undeveloped by the Manchester Water Works, which is buying it. The purchase is a continuation of Manchester Water Works’s 140-year tradition of undevelopment -- buying land surrounding the lakes and streams in the Massabesic watershed in order to reestablish forests or to keep forests intact. This re-wilding program is the other half of the perhaps more well known function of the Water Works, to treat Lake Massabesic water at the utility’s treatment plant and send it to the faucets of its 160,000 water customers.
Because they filter and store rainwater and snowmelt, forests are the first line of defense against contaminants getting into the water supply. Before treatment plants, forests were the only lines of defense. Nothing against the engineering geniuses, but healthy forests are still the best and the cheapest way to keep drinking water clean.
Consider this from the EPA’s “The Economic Benefits of Protecting Healthy Watersheds” report:
“ In a study of 27 U.S .water suppliers, researchers found that protecting forested watersheds used for drinking water sources can reduce capital, operational and maintenance costs for drinking water treatment. They found that watersheds with greater percentages of protected forest correlate to fewer water treatment expenditures.”
Forests protect our drinking water in two ways. First, if the land buffering the water supply is in forest, it’s not contributing pollutants the way it might if it was being used for housing or industry. Second, trees slow water down. Paved surfaces and structures prevent rain from soaking into the soil, so it runs off quickly, picking up contaminants along the way and dumping them into streams, ponds and lakes. Trees are constantly taking water up and storing it, and their roots anchor the soil, preventing erosion and rampant runoff and contributing to filtration – nature’s detox.
The Manchester Water Works owns 8,000 acres around Massabesic and the ponds and streams that feed it. But ownership doesn’t equal permanent protection. The vicissitudes of politics and financial stresses could result in the sale of any of this land into development in the future. This reality is propelling the Forest Society to work with the Manchester Water Works to permanently conserve 1,870 acres of Water Works land, around Tower Hill Pond in nearby Candia and Hooksett. Tower Hill Pond must be kept as pristine as possible, since it has a drainage gate on one end that is opened to refill Lake Massabesic each autumn. So the Forest Society is raising grants and donations to buy a conservation easement on the land surrounding the pond. This legal easement deed will be permanent, so that even if the land is sold in some future time of financial or political pressure at City Hall (as has happened in other cities), the land will always be safe from commercial development.
So what does the conservation easement on 1,870 acres of land around Tower Hill Pond have to do with that ugly duckling 2.5-acre lot near the shores of Massabesic, a couple of miles away? Everything. The MWW is using the funds from selling the Tower Hill conservation easement as capital, MWW officials have told me, to buy and undevelop the former welding business site, and others to come.
I had a chance to visit the Massabesic plot just recently. As I scanned the site, I mentally replaced the pavement with soil and erased the fuel storage tanks, the buildings and the trash. I imagined young birch trees and white pines in their place, and chickadees chirping merrily in their branches.