Housatonic water woes

At a meeting in 2018, Nathan Turner shows the Great Barrington Select Board the water from his home faucet. Customers of the Housatonic Water Works Co. say the intermittent problem has worsened over the past several years. Now, state regulators are pressuring the company for answers.

GREAT BARRINGTON — When the state’s utilities regulator asked Housatonic’s private water company questions last month, its answers revealed details of the ongoing struggle with an aging infrastructure, and pressure from state environmental officials to solve problems.

The Housatonic Water Works Co.’s response to the state Department of Public Utilities also shows that one state lawmaker is encouraging a serious look at a municipal takeover of the waterworks that serves about 800 households, mostly in Housatonic.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said discussions with the town’s water utility, the Great Barrington Fire District, have been underway.

“We continue to have good conversation [sic] with the town, the fire district and the water company about the long term plan,” Pignatelli wrote in a July 30 email to Michael Gorski, regional director of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Officials are trying to release $50,000 from a state bond bill to study a possible merger.

The more than 200 pages of documents submitted to the DPU were posted on the town website recently and include water quality test results, chemical levels, correspondence and capital investments.

It comes amid the town’s promise to problem-solve amid complaints from fed-up residents who have bouts of discolored water, mostly in the summer months or during hydrant flushing.

While the cold weather has brought relief, officials and regulators are continuing to respond to the flood of grievances that has made for stormy relations between many customers and the water company over the past several years.

The latest revelation is that the problem might not, after all, be rust flaking from cast-iron pipes that date to the 1800s. An engineer, in an October report, says the discoloration likely is due to high levels of manganese in the Long Pond source.

The DEP says lots of things might be contributing. The agency says that problems due to a lack of investment in the water system over the years run deep.

In a Nov. 6 notice, the DEP ticked off a litany of problems, some of which also could be contributing, and ordered numerous measures in the interest of public health.

Fluctuating chlorine levels have been at issue. Too much, and it is corrosive to the old mains — and old household pipes that contain copper and lead, creating a health hazard. Too little, and it does not sanitize the water.

Correspondence between the company and the DEP reveals this struggle.

In an Aug. 13 email, one of the company’s consultants says the agency “apparently doesn’t like” its goal levels of chlorine residual samples, saying they are too high and likely responsible for rusty water.

“Have you heard of cases where 0.3 or even 0.5 mg/L chlorine causes rusty or yellow water?” wrote Richard Gullick.

“They are off base,” David Cornwell said in response, adding that chlorine levels might need to be higher.

James Mercer, the waterworks’ treasurer and co-owner, said that the DEP has yet to respond to Cornwell’s analysis that led to the elevated manganese theory.

And he said to remember that the discoloration problems are intermittent.

Yet, some say it’s time to set a plan in motion that will put an end to these trials.

Pignatelli recalls how Lenox resolved water problems in Lenox Dale when it took over the private company serving it. He said that, in this case, while it will take time to replace outdated mains and other equipment, it’s worth it.

“Great Barrington is the economic hub of Southern Berkshire and I think it’s time to have a state of the art facility for the entire community,” he said.

The price tag could be about $22 million, according to a 2018 report.

The waterworks would have to be appraised, and Mercer said that he could not speak to the value and said all of that is up to the town.

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