When it comes to securing a plentiful supply of clean water for a population of nearly 100,000 people, few communities are more dependent on a small, meandering stream than the five communities that lie along the Canoe River.
The Canoe River Aquifer, which winds through Norton, Easton, Mansfield, Sharon and Foxboro, provides about 50 percent of all the water consumed by those towns. And for the last 30 years, no group has worked harder to publicize its importance than the Canoe River Aquifer Advisory Committee, a state-formed agency composed of local residents dedicated to preserving and protecting the river.
Over the last three decades, the volunteer committee has worked to promote conservation and cooperation among communities, educate the public and prompted a still-ongoing drive to assemble a green belt along the river to protect it from encroachment.
"It's amazing the amount of consistency and continuity this group has shown," said SRPEDD regional transportation planner Bill Napolitano who has worked closely with the volunteers. "And they've done it all with chewing gum and bailing wire."
On May 3, CRAAC celebrates its 30th anniversary with a dinner party at the Chateau Restaurant in Norton.
Members of the volunteer group have worked tirelessly over the years to hold meetings, schedule conferences and conduct an annual Canoe River Aquifer Awareness Day with canoeing and tours for the public, Napolitano said. Many of those involved, including retired Easton water Superintendent Wayne Southworth, the late Mansfield conservationist Leonard Flynn, Foxboro's Joan Sozio and Norton conservation agent Jenn Carlino, have dedicated years to the effort.
Southworth said the need for regional cooperation emerged during the 1980s when Easton and Norton were seeking to develop new wells along the border between the two towns. Norton water Superintendent David Rich was among those who recognized the need to protect and preserve the area's water resources.
In 1987, then state Rep. Bill Vernon sponsored legislation to create CRAAC as a formal government agency with the mission of educating the public and government officials and providing advice and advocacy on aquifer protection. CRAAC's vision has never been more important, says Southworth.
"Water doesn't respect political boundaries," he said. "We all have to work together."
Despite limited resources, CRAAC and its volunteers have done more than just talk. The group's efforts helped pave the way to have the aquifer designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and as a federal sole source aquifer, labels that provide for review of proposed projects that might affect water quality.
Although unable to acquire land on its own, the group and its supporters have also served as a catalyst to create a green belt along the river's 16-mile length to protect it from overdevelopment. Towns along the river have acquired large swaths of land to protect their water source.