GREAT BARRINGTON — It was yet more bad news for Housatonic residents struggling with drinking water problems.
And they don’t want it to be the last word.
A Great Barrington water department official told the Select Board recently it would be too expensive for its customers to merge its water system with Housatonic’s old and troubled one. Hearing that, a number of residents were incredulous – and angry.
Now they are fighting that assessment. They say numbers need to be thoroughly crunched before options are off the table.
They also say merging the systems is a moral imperative to rectify an unfairness to Housatonic residents – many of whom have endured various shades of discolored water, as well as safety concerns – as they continue to pay water bills and buy massive amounts of bottled water.
“A lot of the people who are in the village are people that are important to the ecosystem in the Berkshires – a lot of them are plumbers and carpenters and people who live here full time,” said resident Andrew Berens, who has been able to tap into an old well for water, but would rather be on a municipal system. “It’s not generally a population of second homeowners.”
He believes Housatonic residents, as contributors to Town Hall coffers, have the right to the town’s help for a solution – one that involves an effort by the entire town.
Berens and other residents were not happy when Walter “Buddy” Atwood III, chair of the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department’s Prudential Committee, told the Select Board the district is “not interested” in fully and permanently connecting its water system with that of the privately-owned Housatonic Water Works Co.
Atwood later confirmed he was speaking on behalf of the district and the committee, which is separate from the town, though it bills through it. He cited the increase in labor and other problems that might not guarantee improvements in water quality. He said it would spur rate increases for current customers.
He later doubled down on this view.
“Where are [town officials] going to find $30 million dollars?” he asked, referring to an engineer’s estimates to upgrade the troubled waterworks. “And that’s the cheap end.”
He said to merge the systems the fire district’s customers would have to vote to dissolve it as it is now.
Prudential Committee member William Brinker said the committee has “discussed this at length.” He also spoke of the ever-increasing costs of materials, and that municipal water companies have to pay prevailing wage – unlike a private waterworks.
“Check the prices on pipe this week,” he said. “They’ve doubled if not tripled.”
Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said the town is pursuing a possibility of a purchase of the waterworks by it or another company, like Aquarion, as well as a possible merger of the two systems.
He said the town isn’t looking to dissolve the fire district.
“As far as circumventing the Fire District Prudential Committee goes, that’s not an option we’re exploring,” Pruhenski said.
Waterworks co-owner and treasurer James Mercer would not comment on whether he has had any conversations with Aquarion, an Eversource subsidiary that appears interested in buying it.
Town officials are exploring whether the waterworks can be transformed into a public company, so it has access to grants and federal loans.
“Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that prohibits by statute and regulation private entities from borrowing under the EPA’s State Revolving Fund program,” wrote Margaret Boyle, communications director for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in response to questions about whether federal infrastructure money is available to help Housatonic.
Boyle said Neal’s office wasn’t immediately sure whether the waterworks would meet eligibility requirements to receive money from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but would look into it.
The waterworks is beset by problems caused mostly by old pipes and treatment equipment. The system is under the close eye of regulators.
Upgrading the entire waterworks would cost at least $31 million – mostly in pipes — according to a 2021 engineering report.
The report said costs to customers stay in the affordable range if the two systems were merged. A standalone fix of Housatonic’s system sends customer bills skyrocketing, it said. In 2018 the engineer said fusing the systems – which he estimated would cost around $4 million – was a good idea and would likely lower costs over time.
Yet last year, David Prickett of DPC Engineering said merging the systems and doing all the required upgrades would cause “staggering” rate hikes for all residents.
The town began considering a purchase of the waterworks last year as a step to possibly connecting it with the fire district. And on Monday, Pruhenski, the town manager, said an appraiser will assess the value of the waterworks.
Another resident who believes neither Atwood nor the town should be dismissing this idea is Sharon Gregory, a former chair of the Finance Committee.
Gregory thinks the scenario should be played out and the numbers run, using figures from engineering reports and what Aquarion representatives said was the $1.8 million value of the waterworks.
She said she and others have asked the Finance Committee to analyze everything from initial financing of the planned new filtration system to pipe replacements down the line.
“Dismissing and saying we have to keep things as they are is very premature, so let’s go to the next step and get the facts,” she said. “Run the numbers, and maybe it’s later [we ask], ‘Who’s paying for it?.’ When people see the numbers it’s going to be more fairly debated as opposed to emotional.”