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A Great Barrington and Housatonic water merger is off the table. It's too expensive and would increase water bills

Man shows jar of brown water at a public meeting

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. A merger between the waterworks and Great Barrington's system is off the table due to the expense to Great Barrington customers, dashing hopes that this would solve the problem. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — The town’s water company has no interest in fixing or running Housatonic’s troubled system, given the expense and the increase that would hit its customers’ water bills.

The Great Barrington Fire District Water Department continues, however, to work on a connection to the Housatonic Water Works Co.’s system as a backup in case of emergency, since the state requires the utilities to have one.

Walter “Buddy” Atwood III, chairman of the fire district, told the Select Board this week that repairs and upgrades Housatonic’s system needs would present the fire district with new struggles and would not be good for its finances.

“We’d have to double our employees,” Atwood said. “We already have a debt load that we’re carrying – we’d be carrying a new debt load. We would be in the same position as that water company … we’d be getting the same grief that they’re getting, and we wouldn’t be able to fix the problem for most likely five, six, seven years or maybe longer if we haven’t got the ability to borrow.”

That assessment came as a disappointment to those who have hoped a merger between the two systems would solve Housatonic’s troubles.

Yellow-to-brown water has been on the increase during warmer months due to excessive manganese in the Housatonic company’s Long Pond source. A number of residents are strained by the problem and have lost trust in the privately owned waterworks over this and other issues.

The state has increased its oversight. Meanwhile, the waterworks is testing a filtration system that appears to be successfully removing manganese, according to the waterworks.

Given the fire district’s position, the Select Board now has one less option for a solution.

The board last month called a meeting with representatives from Aquarion, an Eversource subsidiary with deep pockets that has been buying up small water companies.

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No word has come on whether Aquarion might bite, or whether waterworks’ owners would sell.

The Great Barrington fire district is separate from the town, but bills customers of its roughly 1,695 connections through the town. Water bills appear on residents’ property tax statements.

The fire district serves approximately 4,100 people. It also supplies water to 300 fire hydrants and 53 sprinkler systems.

One Housatonic resident said it was a “moral imperative” that the fire district and the town merge the two systems.

“I understand that the fire district has financial concerns that are equal to the Housatonic waterworks’ concerns, but we see that there’s a long trail of immoral behavior that has led us to this point,” said Anni Crofut. “So sort of throwing up your hand and saying, ‘Well, it’s too expensive …’ that’s not where we’re at at the moment, and the town and fire district really need to step up and take accountability.”

In response to other questions, board Chair Stephen Bannon said the town will continue to explore its options.

Atwood said the fire district would help the town navigate the problems.

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

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