GREAT BARRINGTON — Town officials Tuesday said they will try to get Housatonic Water Works Co. customers a break on their water bills, and come up with a plan that could include buying the company in order to fix a system with water quality problems.
While the town is committed, it won’t be easy, said Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, noting, in part, that voters at annual town meeting would have to approve buying a system that serves a small portion of town — about 850 households that are mostly in Housatonic, and in some parts of Great Barrington, West Stockbridge and Stockbridge.
Resident David Long said there might not be buy-in from residents on this, since it essentially would indemnify waterworks owners from decisions they have made and “leave the broken pieces for the town to pick up.”
“I don’t know about anyone else in Housatonic, but I don’t have a huge appetite to basically bail that out, given multiple histories,” Long added.
Spoiled laundry. Unappetizing glasses of water. Roily bathwater. This is Housatonic's failing water system, the overhauling of which a consultant says will send rates skyrocketing.
Pruhenski spoke at a special Select Board meeting for customers of the private water company, to hear them out and update them on actions taken and options going forward. The town is considering using some of its $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for grants to help company customers deal with drinking water that periodically turns shades of yellow to brown and has unappealing particles. In the long term, replacing the systems and pipes will be expensive and take a long time.
The problem: State regulators say the water is safe to drink, but customers are not convinced. It ruins the white laundry, and some residents are spending extra money to buy bottled water or filtration systems. And fire hydrants on the system produce less-than-ideal flow for firefighting. The state Department of Environmental Protection says much of the system needs an overhaul.
The reason: The waterworks no longer considers rust from old pipes the culprit, but rather high levels of naturally occurring manganese from the Long Pond source.
Sticker shock: A consultant’s estimate pegs an overhaul of the system at about $31 million, putting the company in the red, mostly for pipe replacements. Company owner James Mercer refuted this estimate in a recent letter to customers, saying that the issue isn’t due to pipes, but manganese. A new treatment plant proposed by the company likely will cost less than $2 million, he added.
What’s next: The Select Board will continue to work with state officials and agencies to help customers in the short term, and to find grants for an acquisition of the company and to pay for the upgrades. Pruhenski says there are four options for the town:
• Acquire the waterworks and operate it as an enterprise fund — a user-based system similar to the wastewater treatment plant;
• Acquire the system and give it to an independent water district;
• Acquire it and merge the system with that of the Great Barrington Fire Water District; and
• Not acquire the company, but work with regulators to improve the system. “Basically status quo, but with the town playing a more active role than it has in the past,” Pruhenski said.
Mark your calendar: The waterworks will hold a meeting for customers at 6 p.m. Thursday, via Zoom, to discuss problems and solutions.