There’s no bubbling crude or precious metals in Devens, the former Army base that straddles Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

there are two massive underground aquifers that at one time slaked the
thirst of 15,000 soldiers and their families, and access to that water
is emerging as a sticking point in the stalled negotiations between the
state and the three towns over which ultimately has authority over
Devens, officials and residents said.

Local officials want to
secure future water capacity within their historic boundaries. But
officials from MassDevelopment, the quasi-public agency that runs
Devens, said the towns’ water supplies are not their concern and they
intend to pump out even more water as more businesses settle on the
former base.

That position does not sit well with lo cal leaders.

is quite the commodity,” said Harvard Selectwoman Lucy Wallace. “One of
the arguments for returning jurisdiction of the Devens land to Harvard
would be that we would have control over the aquifers.”

2006, when a proposal to incorporate Devens as a separate municipality
failed, negotiations between MassDevelopment and the three towns have
been at a standstill.

The MassDevelopment-sponsored proposal
required the three towns to relinquish their claims on Devens land in
their historic boundaries. Shirley Town Meeting approved the measure,
but Ayer and Harvard rejected it. The issue hasn’t been revived because
it’s not clear it would pass anytime soon, officials said.

could be years before Town Meeting members have a chance to vote again.
In 1993, the Legislature set a 2033 deadline for determining whether to
make Devens a municipality or split it up among the three towns.

officials said they don’t need to wait for Devens’s final status to be
determined to resolve the water issue. “If MassDevelopment is thinking
10 years down the road to increase the amount of water they use, then
the towns should be involved in that planning process so that this
regional resource can be shared equitably,” said Heidi Ricci, a Shirley
resident who chairs the Devens Open Space and Recreation Advisory

Ayer already has asked to take possession of a well on
a part of the former base in the town’s historic boundaries, said Ayer
Selectwoman Carolyn McCreary. MassDevelopment rejected the request, but
it shows local officials have been serious about securing water,
McCreary said.

Richard Montouri, executive vice president of
MassDevelopment, said he wasn’t sure how the agency might address the
towns’ concerns. Besides the request from Ayer to be given a well,
Montouri said he hasn’t received any concrete proposals from town
officials about the water.

If the towns feared water shortages,
Montouri said, they should seek to buy water from MassDevelopment or
build wells on the portions of their land above the aquifers, rather
than complaining when MassDevelopment wouldn’t do it for them on
Devens. “What these communities have chosen to do is not spend the
capital costs themselves but piggyback on us.”

In the meantime, MassDevelopment has set aside open space, welcomed some 250 residents, and attracted business to Devens.
Bristol-Myers Squibb
is currently building a $1 billion facility there that is expected to
employ hundreds. The Army Corps of Engineers also recently said that an
$81 million training complex will be built by 2011 on Army land at
Devens for Army and Marine reservists and Army National Guard members.

Squibb chose Devens in part because of its water, said MassDevelopment
spokeswoman Meg Delorier. But the company won’t be using an excessive
amount of water or flouting state or federal environmental rules, she
said. “If a company is going to be a huge water user and not create
jobs, we’re not going to bring that company to Devens,” said Delorier.

has four wells that pump around 500,000 gallons of water on average a
day, said Jim Moore, Devens utilities supervisor. But MassDevelopment
is spending millions to increase the capacity to 4.3 million gallons a
day, the limit allowed by its Department of Environmental Protection
permit, he said.

That might seem like a lot of water, said
Montouri, but at one time the base’s wells provided water to an Army
facility. “The amount we are pumping out of the aquifers is not even
half of what the aquifers could generate.”

“The demand goes up as
the town grows,” said Shirley Water District Superintendent Brian
Goodman. “Down the road, it’s going to be a problem.”

Ayers’ McCreary, the towns cannot wait until a water crisis befalls
them to figure out how they can take advantage of the aquifers.

now uses 320,000 gallons of water a day on average, 35,000 gallons more
than last year, Goodman said. Ayer uses around 1.4 million gallons a
day on average, according to Mike Madigan, public works superintendent.
Harvard uses 20,000 gallons a day, said Richard Nota, its DPW