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How much is Housatonic’s water system worth? Appraisal is underway as residents press for town ownership

Man shows jar of brown water at a public meeting (copy)

Residents turn out to a special meeting held by the Select Board in 2018 about problems with Housatonic Water Works Co. water. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — An appraisal of Housatonic Water Work Co.’s system is underway as the town continues to cast about for solutions to drinking-water problems that include discoloration and elevated levels of disinfection byproducts.

For an inspection and appraisal the town has hired a Latham, N.Y.-based consultant firm, Raftelis, which, in part, specializes in water utility finances and valuation.

Raftelis’ website says the company has worked with municipalities across the U.S. and beyond, including Boston, Austin, Texas and Flint, Mich.

The appraisal of the privately-owned waterworks comes as residents filed a citizens’ petition in support of a town purchase and management of the waterworks. Sixteen people signed it, which puts the question before voters at annual town meeting on May 1.

William Nappo, a Housatonic resident, said he created the petition as a way to educate residents and give town officials an extra nudge.

Nappo says he’s one of the lucky ones: His water is usually clear. But there’s always an element of surprise.

“It’s like a lottery every day when you open your faucet,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re getting, which is scary.”

A report on Raftelis’ findings should be available in middle- to late-February, said Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, speaking to the Select Board at its late January meeting.

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The cost for the the service will be around $34,000, Pruhenski said.

Waterworks’ co-owner and Treasurer James Mercer did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The appraisal comes after several years of increasing water-quality problems that includes a range of discoloration due mostly to excessive manganese in the Long Pond source, as well as safety questions over disinfection byproducts linked to cancer.

It also comes amid a steady drumbeat of outrage from residents. Most recently it has prompted a a demand for action written by a Boston-based environmental lawyer.

The waterworks problem is at the top of the board’s current priority list. The document says the Select Board is “holding regular strategy sessions” with the town’s attorney and “considering several options at this time.”

About two years ago someone first floated the idea of a town purchase of the aging system. The rationale was that municipal ownership would give the town access to government grants that the waterworks management says are not available to a private company.

Another possibility is a purchase by a company like Aquarion, an Eversource Energy subsidiary. The Select Board met last fall with Aquarion representatives to explore that option. Other towns and Aquarion also are courting one other.

Raftelis’ work for municipalities has included financial models of water systems across the country. The company’s website says it has extensive experience with water and wastewater utility valuation.

In 2013, before Flint suffered through its lead-contamination crisis, it hired Raftelis to perform a water rate study and financial analysis for the city’s transition to supplying water from the Flint River.

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

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