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Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 9.16.44 AMOn October 3, I will be talking about Cascade to a group of readers at the headquarters of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).

At book events, people are often quite interested in the engineering side of the Quabbin story. An attendee at one of these events recently contacted me. He is a member of the Retired Men’s Association (RMA) group, which meets monthly at the Sudbury, MA Baptist Church.  In 2010, Frederick A. Laskey, Executive Director of the MWRA spoke to the group about the Boston water system.

The group published a summary of the talk, which appeared in their Bulletin, and which appears below with their gracious permission.


Water, Water, Everywhere …


What a joy it is to hear from a head of a large, sprawling governmental agency who not only can articulate its big picture but also demonstrates a knowledge of how things work at the base of its pyramid. This was your reporter’s reaction to the January 8 presentation by Frederick A. Laskey, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (“MWRA”).


Fred took us through 79 slides that presented the history of the water system that serves 2.5 million people in 60 eastern Massachusetts municipalities. He described the rebuilding of the sewer system, the modernization of the water system, the use of renewable energy to power operations, and the challenges that lie ahead. I debated with myself about how to digest this immense amount of information. After two false starts, I decided to simply highlight the points I found most interesting. Thus, what follows may suffer from my choices:

  • In 1795, wooden pipes were laid to transport water from Jamaica Pond into Boston, supplementing or replacing local wells, rainwater catchments and the spring on Boston Common.
  • In 1845, the Sudbury River was impounded to form Lake Cochituate and the water was piped to the Brookline Reservoir.
  • Fire fighting was a major driver for the development of municipal water systems, including Boston’s.
  • In the minds of Boston citizenry, the arrival of water from western sources was a very big event. The 1848 dedication ceremony at Frog Pond featured fireworks and drew a crowd of at least 100,000.
  • In 1878, the Sudbury River was diverted through the Sudbury Aqueduct to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
  • Increased demand due to indoor plumbing caused planners to consider new water sources as far away as Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and Sebago Lake in Maine.
  • In 1897, the Nashua River was impounded, creating the Wachusett Reservoir 38 miles from Boston.
  • In 1936, construction of the Quabbin Reservoir began. 39 square miles flooded, including the sites of 4 towns and 34 cemeteries. $53 million total project costs. 26 lives lost during construction.
  • The Quabbin seldom is below 90% of its capacity. Its water meets federal standards at the source. No treatment needed. Delivered to Boston entirely by gravity.
  • In 1982, the City of Quincy filed a civil suit claiming that untreated and partially treated sewage from Nut and Deer islands violated the Massachusetts Clean Waters Act. Followed in 1983 by a similar suit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation. Boston’s harbor was said to be the filthiest in the U.S.
  • In 1985, the MWRA was created as an independent authority responsible for the water and sewer infrastructures serving the greater Boston region, and specifically charged to end the pollution of Boston Harbor.
  • The $3.8 billion Boston Harbor Project was completed in 2001. Deer Island has a 1.2 billion gallon daily wastewater treatment capacity and currently is treating about 380 million gallons per day.
  • The National Association of Clean Water Agencies awarded Deer Island its Gold Award in 2007 and 2008. Probably will repeat for 2009.
  • Meanwhile, demand was exceeding the water system’s safe yield. This spawned an aggressive demand management program. Infrastructure leaks corrected, water saving fixtures installed in 350,000 households, public education programs implemented.
  • A major factor in motivating users to act was the ten fold increase in water rates. Today, Boston’s water usage has been reduced to the 1900 level!
  • In 2003, the 17.6 mile Metrowest Water Supply Tunnel was completed between Marlborough and covered storage facilities in Weston. Open storage is no longer permitted. The tunnel runs several hundred feet below the surface, thus providing greater security. The old Hultman Aqueduct parallels this new tunnel and will be rehabilitated to create redundancy for backup.
  • The John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant came on-stream in 2005. Ozonation provides primary disinfection; chloramination provides secondary disinfection. Fluoridation and corrosion control also are performed there. Ultraviolet disinfection is being installed to deactivate any possible Cryptosporidium contamination.
  • The explosion in the use of pharmaceuticals in humans and animals has created a serious water quality problem in many municipal systems. Hormones are especially a problem. Many ingested pharmaceuticals are not entirely retained in the body. Significant amounts can be found in body waste. Many “Toilet to Tap” water recycling systems (e.g., treating polluted water sources to produce potable water) pass pharmaceuticals through to the users.
  • No traces of pharmaceutical compounds have been detected in MWRA water. The Environmental Working Group ranked MWRA water in the top 5 in the nation and number 1 among non-filtered.
  • Why do consumers complain about water rates while paying several dollars each day for bottled water that often is inferior in quality to MWRA’s? (And clogs landfills with plastic bottles).
  • MWRA is aggressively pursuing the use of renewable energy to power its facilities. Methane from treatment processes on Deer Island fuels boilers that produce steam for turbine-driven electrical generators. Wind turbines are being installed on Deer Island, Nut Island and at the Charlestown pump station. Solar panels also are producing power at Deer Island and will be installed at the Carroll Water Treatment Plant in Marlborough. At the Weston storage facility, 1.2 million kwh per year are now generated by water turbines that have replaced pressure reducing valves.
  • MWRA also has worked hard at using technology to reduce operating expenses. Facilities automation, remote control of operations and the substitution of roving crews for stationary staff have reduced headcounts from 1,768 in 1997 to 1,210 today.
  • A challenge: Deer Island, although relatively new, nevertheless will require about $400 million for equipment replacements and upgrades over next 10 years.
  • A challenge: Eurasian milfoil has invaded Wachusett and Quabbin Reservoirs. Zebra mussels have been discovered in western Massachusetts.
  • A challenge: successful water management has reduced usage and this in turn has reduced MWRA revenues. Meanwhile, debt service will increase from 36 percent of the MWRA’s Current Expense Budget to a projected 60 percent in 2016.
  • MWRA has surplus water capacity. Expanding the system to communities on its periphery would increase revenues, add debt service capacity, reduce draw-downs on aquifers caused by municipal wells, and in some cases improve a municipality’s water quality.


At the conclusion of his presentation, Fred took several questions. Among them:

  • Any possibility that with federal backing other regions at some future time will look to our region to meet their water needs? Answer: Unlikely. Cost to transport would be prohibitive.
  • Some communities are affecting river levels by excessive draw downs of aquifers by river-side wells. Do MWRA’s operations affect aquifers and river levels? Answer: All MWRA water is surface water from watersheds. None from wells.
  • What percent of MWRA costs are related to sewage treatment versus water treatment? Answer: It’s about 60 percent sewage treatment.
  • I see variations in levels of the Sudbury River that do not seem to be related to seasonal variations. Is MWRA responsible? Answer: It’s possible that discharges into the river in anticipation of elevated rainfall or snow melts could be what you are seeing.
  • Is MWRA involved with the collection and disposal of storm water? Answer: No. But that’s the next big issue. Contaminants in storm water are a serious problem.



cascade map blog

Cascade, the town in my novel of the same name, is loosely based on four towns in Massachusetts that were flooded in the 1930s to create a vast reservoir. Recently, an irate reader wrote to ask why I had invented a fictional town. “I would have enjoyed this book much more if you had chosen one of the four real towns for the setting!”

I was reminded of the scene in SIDEWAYS where Jack’s future father-in-law says to novelist Miles, “I like nonfiction! There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented it—waste of time!”

The best fiction is full of truth, but instead of a treatise, I just wrote back and thanked my reader for reading. And I told her this: That I originally intended to write about the real towns, but soon realized that my story of an artist struggling with leaving her mark in the world needed to be set in a town that had been a real “place to be” in the 1920s, a cultural center with a Shakespeare Theater at its heart. So, like many authors, I superimposed an imagined town over a real piece of land. These drowned towns happened all over the country, all over the world, in fact. The “truth” of what happened is of course very much a part of my book. Anyway, thinking about all this, I was reminded of some favorite, relevant quotes:

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. —Albert Camus

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. –Tennessee Williams



Globe twitter

How wonderful! CASCADE won the voter’s poll and is The Boston Globe’s first Book Club choice. I was honored to be included with writers I greatly admire: Andre Dubus III, Junot Diaz, Geraldine Brooks, and Claire Messud.

Readers can take part in the club all summer:




10177852_766870140012518_7347426407617977270_nDana, Massachusetts was one of the towns wiped off the map to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, but much of what was Dana is now watershed, and thus above water. Here’s the old Main Street and grassy town common. You can imagine the Eagle Hotel, the General Store & Post Office, the church, the school, automobiles, people…


At my desk, working on this new novel, and wondering where it will be a year from now? Finished? In good shape? How will the story have changed, as it surely will? And wondering, too, what personal stories will fill my notebook this year..

My daughter knows I like to have little “talismans” that relate to stories as I write them. For Christmas, she gave me this photograph from Copenhagen, 1967, and a Czechoslovakian coin from 1967.  One of my characters has important experiences in those places, during those years. The back of the photograph says, “Town Hall Square, Copenhagen, Denmark, 7/67. Dot Ogilvy.”

Who was Dot Ogilvy and how did she end up on eBay and then in my Christmas stocking?




start day rightI received this lovely note yesterday:

Hi Maryanne — I met you at my book club meeting a couple weeks ago. Just wanted to write and tell you that you inspired me to read Alice Munro. I’ve been reading a story every morning — and it kinda makes my day.   –Suzanne

That note made my day, and reminded me that I often like to start the day with a poem. Or a couple of eggs in Paris….


The man who paints inside my little terrarium (from Twigterrariums).


I’m a writer and fascinated, naturally, by the way memory plays into storytelling. It can be disconcerting to know that much of what we think we remember is either flat-out false, or at the least, distorted.

The town in which my novel CASCADE is set is based on real towns that were flooded to create a reservoir. At book events, I often tell people that I live on another river that was also flooded, and that my house, built in 1831, was one of the only houses allowed to remain standing, because it was high off the flood zone.

Tragically, I say, in the field to the right of me, an old man lived in the house he had been born and raised in. He was so distraught at the knowledge that he would be forced to leave his lifelong home that he hung himself.

That’s what I tell people, and we always share a sober moment of silence. But even as I’ve been telling that story, I’ve been questioning myself:  It’s true, right? I didn’t just make that up? An old man did hang himself? And his house was in the field?

I’ve been half-heartedly trying to find the town history writeup that I knew was somewhere in my house, and now I’ve finally found it.  I am relieved to know that I didn’t  invent a poor soul hanging in the rafters, but I had messed up the details. A man had killed himself, yes, but in the basement. And he doesn’t seem to have been particularly old. Most striking to me was to realize that he had only recently acquired the house. It hadn’t been his lifelong home at all.

Guts of the story: true. Details: false. I was glad to know I hadn’t completely made up a hanged man, but I concede that I might have. Memory’s tricky that way.

In England, artist A.R. Hopwood has collaborated with a professor of psychology at the University of Warwick to explore the phenomenon of false memory. They are building a “False Memory Archive.” They are interesting to peruse and you are welcome to add your own:



I’ve always known that if I can’t clearly see a character or a scene, then the reader surely won’t be able to. Yet even though I knew better, I did submit the Cascade manuscript with a fuzzy part I hoped no one would notice: At one point, Dez and Jacob open a dam. I had no idea what that dam really looked like. I wrote about it in a summarizing, detail-less way, and hoped no one would notice. Of course, I should have known better, and of course my editor noticed:

[pgi1]Hard to picture this, why is there a gap? How was the wedge stone hanging before?

I realized the whole scene was too vague to be believable. I needed to rewrite it, but first I needed to be able to SEE it. I enlisted the help of an artist, my brother Michael, who, fortunately, is more mechanical-minded than I am. He drew up various pictures of possible dams. Once I had these visuals, fleshing out the scene with details was a cinch.



Dez crossed her fingers that the job at The American Sunday Standard would be hers for as long as she wanted it, for the first time feeling for herself the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?

–From Cascade