Housatonic water

Long Pond is the source of Housatonic’s water. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection this month ordered the Housatonic Water Works Co. to fix a slew of problems and install new equipment. The company has been under fire for discolored water and other quality problems.

GREAT BARRINGTON — While a consultant says removing manganese from drinking water might solve discoloration and sediment plaguing Housatonic tap water, state officials say more than a dozen other factors also might be contributing to the problem.

They also say that excessive leaks in the system are costing the Housatonic Water Works Co. and its customers.

In a Nov. 6 notice to treasurer and co-owner James Mercer, a representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection detailed a slew of issues that the company must correct in the interest of public health.

Residents have been complaining for years about ongoing problems with discoloration of their water, initially thought to be caused by rust sediment in old cast-iron mains. But, this month, a new report identified naturally occurring manganese as the likely culprit of tap water that ranges from yellow to brown, mostly in the warm months, and during and after hydrant flushing.

While the DEP says the discoloration doesn’t present a health risk, residents are wary and frustrated, though the problem mostly has subsided with the onset of cooler temperatures.

The agency will continue to rate the company’s capacity status as “conditional” under its three-tier ratings: adequate, conditional and inadequate, according to the notice from Deirdre Doherty, section chief of the agency’s Drinking Water Program.

During a Sept. 16 on-site “sanitary survey,” the DEP found that the company has not inspected and cleaned its storage tank since it replaced some old pipes after 2017, and those changes might have caused more sediment to accumulate there and flow into tap water, Doherty wrote.

The list of actions includes buying new monitoring equipment, doing more sampling and coding fire hydrants according to water flow, given concerns by local fire officials that Housatonic hydrants are weak.

The agency also has ordered the company to submit a pipe-replacement plan by Dec. 31, 2021; most of the pipes were installed in the 1800s.

Doherty wrote that “the age and operation of its water filtration plant” also could be contributing to water quality problems. She noted the plant dates to 1939, and does not meet current state standards.

And in what appears to be a sign that Great Barrington or its water district might have to take over Housatonic’s system, one state lawmaker said there is money in an economic development bond bill for a study that would evaluate the entire waterworks.

A 2018 report pegged the cost of upgrading the system at $22 million.

While some mains have been replaced since 2017, about 80 percent of the system dates to the 19th century.

And while the manganese study was a surprise, and the DEP is reviewing it, the agency’s seven-page notice requires, for instance, the installation of new equipment to ensure safe chemical levels, increased testing and log-keeping.

It also says that “unaccounted” water from leaks is high, most recently at 35.4 percent. The Water Management Act’s goal is 10 percent.

This “indicates inadequate maintenance distribution system and service connections,” and results in “lost revenues that would be used to make needed system repairs.”

Other corrections include work to filters; more evaluations by the company’s consultant; the collection of raw water samples to test for algae by Dec. 31; installation of a portable generator until a permanent one is completed; maps of all mains the company says are owned by customers; and a copy of the bylaw that Mercer says requires that customers maintain them.

Mercer did not return calls seeking comment. He previously has said the private company does not have access to state grants that could solve these problems.

Town officials have written Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito about the crisis, and state officials say that $50,000 from the bond bill is available to study the system, according to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli D-Lenox.

This would be a road map for the town or its water district, and would help put a price tag on a possible takeover.

“Without the inventory, it’s all speculation,” Pignatelli said, adding that the DEP wants to work with the town.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. On Twitter