Since 1940, the Town of Amherst has maintained significant watershed forest holdings to protect its reservoirs and underground water supplies. Watershed holdings total 2,662 acres, with approximately 690 acres in Shutesbury, 1,537 acres in Pelham, 140 acres in Belchertown, and 300 acres in the Lawrence Swamp in South Amherst. For many years the watershed forest has been under active management for water production, revenue from wood sales, and improvement of timber stands and wildlife habitat. Overall, the Pelham watershed totals approximately 3,950 acres of Town and private land, and drains into three small reservoirs with a combined surface area of about 18 acres. The 3,650-acre Shutesbury watershed feeds Atkins Reservoir, with a 51.5-acre surface area.
In 1941, the Town purchased the Amherst Water Company real estate, which included four reservoirs and considerable acreage in Pelham and Shutesbury, with additional parcels added in succeeding years. The Town now owns approximately one third of the 7,600 acres of land that drain water into the reservoirs, and hopes to increase that percentage when necessary to prevent development that might have a negative impact on the water supply. The Town water supply system currently has seven sources that include the Atkins Reservoir in Shutesbury and Amherst, the Pelham Reservoirs: Hills, Hawley, and Intake, the South Amherst Wells: The Brown Well, the Lawrence Swamp Well and the Bay Road Well
The two reservoir systems, Atkins Reservoir and the Pelham Reservoirs, provide Amherst with approximately half its drinking water and form the Town's surface water drinking supply. Atkins Reservoir, located in northeast Amherst and Shutesbury, is the Town's largest surface water supply with a surface area of 51 acres, a capacity of approximately 200 million gallons of water, and a drainage area of 5.7 square miles. The Pelham Reservoirs are three individual water bodies formed by impounding streams draining into Amherst and with a combined surface area of about 18 acres. The drainage area of these reservoirs covers approximately 6.2 square miles with 18.5 miles of streams in the hills of Pelham east of Amherst.
Almost half of Amherst's drinking water comes from ground water supplies located in South Amherst and in Belchertown. Much of the land surrounding the wells is protected by the Aquifer Recharge Protection zoning overlay district described earlier in this report. This zoning district has strict development requirements requiring clustering of homes and onsite storm water infiltration and management. The Conservation Commission, in addition to other Town Departments, actively pursues the preservation of land and open space within the Lawrence Swamp drainage basin to protect the ground water supplies.
Even with the large amount of preserved land surrounding Amherst's surface water supplies, minimal changes in the land use, impervious surface coverage, and forested land within a watershed can greatly alter water quality. Scattered development and frontage lot construction threaten Amherst's drinking water. The Conservation Commission, aware of the need to protect the Town's water supplies, actively supports appropriate measures that will preserve both underground aquifers and their recharge areas, and above-ground reservoirs and their watersheds. The Commission endorses cooperation and assistance with neighboring towns, acquisition of private property, conservation restrictions, and implementation of forestry management plans to maintain the ecological integrity of land surrounding Amherst's surface water supplies.
The importance of these surface water supplies cannot be underscored enough, as they are uphill from Amherst and supply not only the Town's drinking water, but feed the many streams that flow through the community. Atkins Reservoir is two miles upstream from Puffer's Pond, a popular conservation and recreation area, such that the preserved land surrounding the reservoir helps preserve the water quality of the Cushman Brook and Puffer's Pond. Areas in Amherst within the Atkins Reservoir watershed are within the Town's Watershed Protection overlay district to protect the quality of ground and surface water entering the drinking water supply. A grant awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) helped fund the development of a Surface Water Protection Plan, which identifies the potential sources and pathways of contamination and provide a plan to reduce nonpoint discharges to surface waters.