The new gold: Access to clean water is no longer a given
ATTLEBORO >> It was late summer of last year and there was no rain in sight.
Lake Mirimichi in Plainville and Foxboro, one of Attleboro's reservoirs, had been reduced to mud flats in some areas. Hoppin Hill Reservoir in North Attleboro, another of the city's reservoirs, was little more than a puddle, and Manchester Reservoir in Attleboro, the city's largest source for water, hadn't been at its fullest point in 16 months.
The sixth driest summer in the 115 years of water department record keeping explained some of the problem.
Hoppin Hill meanwhile, was drained intentionally to allow extensive repairs to be made to its dam.
And so city officials were worried.
Automatic sprinklers were banned on Sept. 21 and city officials contemplated what could be a dire future if it didn't rain soon.
No rain means no water, it's as simple as that.
With no end in sight to the drought-like weather, water officials did some calculations.
If conditions remained the same, the city would be out of water in 120 days.
"It was a shocker," acting water department head Paul Kennedy recently told city councilors when he spoke to support a deal worked out with Pawtucket to buy water in an emergency. "If the drought had persisted Attleboro would have been out of water by January 2016."
Fortunately the rain came and a crisis was averted.
The water ban was lifted last Tuesday and all city reservoirs, except Hoppin Hill which was being kept low for repairs to its dam, were full.
But a water supply that would last only four months was too close for comfort.
That's when Mayor Kevin Dumas and Kennedy decided the city needed a backup supply for the future.
"The calculation was done and we said we need to see what we can do," Dumas said. "That's why we started discussions with Pawtucket."
Because of his job, Kennedy thinks about the water supply every day and the need for action was apparent.
"The drought situation was real and we needed to take action," Kennedy said. "We needed a backup plan."
As it turned out, the late Mayor Kai Shang had started negotiations to hook up to Pawtucket's water system in the 1980s, but had never completed the deal with an actual connection.
So with the memory of hot sun and mud flats fresh in their minds, city officials finished the deal and are pushing forward to establish a physical link in South Attleboro with Pawtucket's water system.
Dumas said his intent is to have the new connection open by summer so it will be ready, if needed.
However, the city has to build a $250,000 pumping station first which could delay the start up because of the bidding process and potential construction delays, he said.
The pumping station will be funded from a water department surplus account.
Other costs include a payment to National Grid of $7,547 to install the electric connection needed to power the facility.
The city will also pay Pawtucket $10,000 to make the physical connection when the pumping station, to be located in South Attleboro on city-owned land off Turner Street at Ralco Way and River Street, has been constructed.
The city is also paying Pawtucket $5,000 up front for the first million gallons it buys.
That price equals .005 cents, or half a penny per gallon. The city's rate is about .0059 cents per gallon.
Under the deal, the city needs to provide Pawtucket with 24 hours notice when it needs to buy water.
All told, the Pawtucket water system, formally known as the Pawtucket Water Supply Board, has access to 4.83 billion gallons when its two largest reservoirs, Diamond Hill Reservoir and Arnold's Mill Reservoir — both in Cumberland — are full.
When the deal with Pawtucket was first announced, Pawtucket's water board's chief engineer, Jim Decelles, said Pawtucket's treatment plant has the capacity to pump 25 million gallons per day, which, he added, is more than enough to provide water to Attleboro as needed.
Last year, Pawtucket averaged about 9 million gallons per day for the approximately 100,000 people in three communities, Pawtucket, Cranston and part of Cumberland, that consume its water.
In summertime, that number can go to 12 million gallons per day, Decelles said.
Meanwhile, Attleboro processes an average of 4 million gallons per day for its 44,000 residents in the winter and an average of 6.75 million gallons per day in the summer, according to the water department. That number can increase to as much as 8 million gallons per day during the hottest days.
So even if the high end numbers are added to make 20 million gallons per day, Pawtucket could still produce enough water for all its customers.
Dumas said the connection is intended only for emergency situations, which fortunately the city has yet to encounter with its water supply.
But it will be there just in case.
The deal created a sigh of relief for the mayor.
"We're in a good spot now," Dumas said.
But it's clear, that the quickly evaporating supply last summer brought what could be a precarious situation for the city into sharp focus.
Even now, with all reservoirs full, the city has an estimated supply of 296 days, not even a year, if no rain falls, said Assistant Attleboro Water Superintendent Kourtney Wunschel.
She said the estimate of days is probably high because of the uncertainties of the exact capacities of the reservoirs and the fact that it doesn't take into account seepage and evaporation.
Of course, under normal circumstances, the supply is constantly replenished with rain and snow. There are ebbs and flows every year, but in the end, it usually rains and water comes out when residents open their taps.
While a year-long drought doesn't appear likely, it could happen, and it does happen and sometimes for a lot longer.
California, for example, has been suffering under drought conditions for nearly a decade. While heavy rains this year have helped, reservoirs are not nearly full and the water supply in the Golden State remains tenuous.
As a result, nature's most precious resource should not be taken for granted, officials said.
"Most people don't give a second thought to water because it's always been there," Kennedy told councilors. "But what if it wasn't there?"
Water restrictions often spark complaints when people can't water their lawns or wash their cars.
But not having enough to bathe with, drink or put out fires, is a chilling thought.
With increasing populations, greater water use and weather that is becoming less predictable as climate change takes hold, water could someday become scarcer and more expensive, Kennedy said.
"Right now water is a bargain and it's in abundance, but someday that may not be so," he said. "It will be expensive and not so abundant."
Information from: The (Attleboro) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com
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