MANCHESTER - Manchester Water Works officials are poised to write their own restrictions on horseback riding on their vast holdings in the Lake Massabesic watershed after the state's top environmental official backed down from including the prohibitions into state regulations.
Water Works Director David Paris said horse ridership - and horse waste - have increased over the years around the region's water supply. He said the lake is fragile, and water quality has decreased and blooms of blue-green algae have become more frequent.
Yet this month, N.H. Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack wrote four Republican state senators and said portions of the proposed watershed protection rules that irked horse riders would be removed.
Burack wrote that additional time is needed, and he wants evaluation of "long term water quality trends" in Lake Massabesic and review of the available science into any effect that recreational activities have on water quality.
Last week, Paris said: "I feel the DES maybe should consider protection of tap-water consumers first on their list of priorities. They've put recreation ahead of the risk to our tap-water drinkers in southern New Hampshire."
Assistant DES Commissioner Vicki Quiram said that's not the case. Rather, the DES was surprised by the reaction against the horse restrictions.
"We think it's very, very important to hear from people, and it's very important to assess the science," she said. She said the comment period on the regulations close Monday.
In the meantime, the Manchester Board of Water Commissioners is considering horse restrictions in the rules that apply to property it owns within the watershed, said Kim Griswold, chairman of the Commission's Rules and Regulations Committee.
"Manchester Water Works is not in the recreation business," Griswold said. "We're in the business of providing the healthiest, cleanest water we can to Manchester ratepayers."
The penalties associated with Water Works rules could not be as severe as those resulting from DES rule violations. DES violations could result in a misdemeanor criminal charge. Water Works can only issue court summonses to people who violate its regulations.
This month, 300 people attended a comment period to oppose the Water Works restrictions, according to a news release issued by the campaign office of state Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett.
Boutin said New Hampshire equestrians are among the best stewards of the environment.
"The Manchester Water Works committee may have the best of intentions to protect water quality, but these proposed rules are not supported by any scientific evidence and would do nothing but restrict the ability of horseback riders to enjoy one of our state's greatest multi-use resources," Boutin said.
Paris said horse droppings can contain cryptosporidium, a small organism that can cause severe gastro-intestinal illness in people. Droppings can also put nutrients into the water that result in algal blooms.
He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has toughened regulations regarding toxic blue-green algae, and recent research has linked the algae to Lou Gehrig's disease.
Paris said he doesn't have hard scientific data about the lake readily available. But in the 40 years he's worked with Water Works, he said he's seen the water quality go down. Factors include road salt, climate change and nutrient loading, he said.
Paris said he started working with the DES in 2011 on a rewrite of state regulations that cover watershed protection. The effort stalled for unknown reasons, he said, but then started up again last year.
In November, the DES issued draft watershed protection regulations. A portion dealing with Water Works property in the Lake Massabesic watershed:
. Banned any horseback riding through water in lakes, ponds or streams.
. Restricted horses to designated gravel fire roads.
. Prohibited horses from bike trails, boat launches and picnic areas.
The final proposed regulations, issued March 11, eliminated those restrictions.On March 17, Burack wrote Boutin and fellow Sens. Chuck Morse of Salem, Sharon Carson of Londonderry and Jim Rausch of Derry to say the horseback riding restrictions at Lake Massabesic had been deleted.He said the DES will work with Water Works and the public to assess additional protective measures.
Quiram said she can't say how long it will take to examine scientific issues dealing with horses and the quality of Massabesic's water. She said horses are a small part of an overall set of rules dealing with watershed protection.
"We can always step back in at any time and modify a rule," she said.
Paris said he's disappointed with the delay. He said lots of data are available about the water, but the records are stored away.
He said he tried to work with the equestrian community. They ruled out horse diapers. And they rejected the idea of using only trails far from the water; they enjoyed the nice views, he said.
Burack is expected to sign a final rules proposal by May 5. The rules then go to a joint legislative committee for final review, comment and approval.