Bathtub water (copy)

A bathtub filled with discolored water is shown here in January. Housatonic residents complain of ongoing bouts of discolored water.

GREAT BARRINGTON — A new report commissioned by the town to address ongoing water system problems in Housatonic recommends a slew of upgrades, replacements and changes — including upgrading more than 66,000 feet of old mains with wider pipes — at an estimated cost of $31 million. 

The June 29 report by AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, also lays out a timeline for the work to Housatonic Water Works Co.'s system that would divide the costs into three increments over a period of 20 years.

The Select Board will present these larger findings at its Monday meeting, held on Zoom. The board commissioned the study with state funds amid mounting pressure from residents who suffer with bouts of water issues. 

A letter by Great Barrington resident Sharon Gregory, urging the town to take swift action to solve Housatonic's water infrastructure problem. 

The Board of Health also heard from frustrated residents at its meeting Thursday. Sharon Gregory, who is not a water customer but has closely studied the problem, said the town should quickly plan a strategy for investing in a fix, given the various implications of allowing it to continue and because the waterworks is a "non-complaint, non-public operation." 

Meanwhile, company customers continue to live with the fallout of a problem whose partial solution is to dig up the roads and replace mains at $300 per linear foot, according to current estimates. "Our water has been yellow, brown or off-green for several days now," said Anne O'Dwyer. "It's not just the drinking — it's awful to bathe in."

A Nov. 6, 2020 notice from MassDEP outlining a host of upgrades required by Housatonic Water Works Co.

The company had previously attributed the yellow to brown coloring in the water to rust from the system's mostly 19th century mains during times of hydrant flushing or any turbulence. A 2020 report indicated the culprit is high levels of naturally occurring, seasonal manganese at the system's Long Pond source, which can be managed with a filter.

But there are a host of other, more worrisome, problems, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors the system. The DEP continues to give the system "conditional" status in terms of reliability and safety, though the DEP maintains that the water discoloration is not a health risk.

But other issues could impact health, according to the DEP. In November it issued a notice to the water works of a long list of required upgrades. That included coding fire hydrants, given water flow weakness. It also ordered the company to submit a pipe-replacement plan by Dec. 31, 2021. The agency has also said that the system was losing a high rate of water from leaks, and that the lost revenue can't be put back into a system to make the repairs. 

Apart from replacing the mains, AECOM's recommendations align with the DEP's requirements and include new filters, upgrading electric service, installing an emergency generator in the event of a power failure, and a number of other systems.

AECOM Housatonic Water

AECOM’s recommended spending breakdown for the Housatonic water system.

Company co-owner James Mercer has previously said that the water works has made improvements over the last decade and has more planned, but the cost and related bill increases for ratepayers have prevented a larger overhaul. Mercer not be reached for comment about the AECOM report. 

Other Housatonic residents told health officials that the water problems will continue to bedevil any municipal good works, including affordable housing plans now in motion. "This issue has many tentacles," said Michelle Loubert, adding that water works customers should get a discount on their bills.

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