Our Opinion: Pittsfield getting flooded, but issues are real

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Pittsfield residents might be forgiven for imagining that walls of water are cascading in on them from all sides. With the suddenness of a flash flood, the Shire City faces the need to pay for multiple water projects that, thanks to past dithering and simple bad luck, are all swamping the beleaguered municipality at the same time.

There's the $74-million upgrade for the wastewater treatment plant (Eagle, April 25) that reluctant city councilors finally agreed to in the face of federal Environmental Protection Agency fines for non-compliance. It will eventually cost the average two-toilet household approximately three times what it currently pays (which happens to be one of the lowest rates in the state) for its sewer service after a three-year rate increase phase-in period.

That's the back end of water use. Moving to the front end, Pittsfielders are also preparing to foot the bill for $69 million in maintenance and improvements to the city's drinking water system, which is antiquated and could eventually become hazardous if not upgraded. As of yet, no decisions have been made as to how that tidy sum will get covered, but there's a good chance that the water portion of that city of Pittsfield utility bill will increase as well.

Most recently, the EPA has slapped new permitting requirements on some 260 Bay State municipalities (Pittsfield being one of them) designed to protect Massachusetts waters from stormwater pollution. This is water that drains off after a rainstorm or snowmelt, and that picks up any number of bacteria, viruses, toxic metals, phosphorus and nitrogen that get dumped untreated into waterways like the Housatonic River. The move is a federal/state collaboration (involving the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection), and its goal, according to the EPA, is to find and eliminate illegal sewage discharges from stormwater systems, implement practices like better street sweeping and cleaning of catch basins and make sure that new development incorporates modern stormwater management.

The cost for the stormwater permit compliance, thanks to an adaptable system implemented by the EPA to make the burden on cities as bearable as possible, will be a relative bargain at an estimated $100,000 per year. The permit goes into effect July 1, and Pittsfield will be required to submit a Notice of Intent specifically laying out how it plans to address the issue within 90 days after that date.

The wastewater project was a can Pittsfield kicked down the road as long as it possibly could until it was forced to take action at considerable cost. As for the drinking water improvements, while the timing in light of the wastewater obligation is abysmal, it should be remembered that bad-tasting or potentially unhealthful tap water is one of those issues — along with trash collection — that impel the citizenry to take up pitchforks and torches and storm City Hall.

In a press release celebrating Drinking Water Week, regional EPA administrator Alexandra Dunn observed that New England's water infrastructure is aging, with some systems more than 100 years old. It is a difficult challenge when various elements of the infrastructure are springing leaks all at once, but it must be, and as Ms. Dunn pointed out, there are low interest loan programs available to help if communities take advantage of them.

The bottom line is that it's going to be a tough few years for Pittsfield utility ratepayers. But the financial investment is overdue, and once made, will be worth it.


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