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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: In weighing Housatonic water woes, Great Barrington officials shouldn't take municipal ownership off the table

Given the stubborn and severe nature of the water problems facing the village of Housatonic, this is not the right time to be taking potential solutions off the table. As such, we think it would be shortsighted for Great Barrington officials to dismiss the notion of taking municipal ownership of the struggling Housatonic Water Works.

Yes, there are downsides to municipal ownership. At a recent Select Board meeting, fire district Chairman Walter “Buddy” Atwood III detailed the expected difficulties from merging Housatonic Water Works with the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department: The systemic fixes needed for the privately owned water company serving Housatonic amount to a tall order, which would likely be costly for ratepayers and the town alike, and might necessitate municipal borrowing to facilitate such a plan.

Perhaps this militates toward creating a new municipal agency in Great Barrington to buy Housatonic Water Works instead of leaving it to the fire district. All of the above, however, does not remove the reality of Housatonic’s water woes or do anything to address a question that’s been left looming far too long: What is a municipality to do when a sizable chunk of residents and businesses in a corner of the community deemed “the best small town in America” regularly draw discolored and possibly dangerous water from their faucets?

No community should have to deal with such a failure of basic services and impingement on quality of life, especially for this long. Like everyone in Great Barrington — and especially Housatonic — we are hopeful that alternative solutions might offer relief. Still, hope should not blind us from being clear-eyed about the prospects of the real alternatives left if municipal ownership is foolishly dismissed.

Engineer says filtration test shows successful removal of manganese from Housatonic water

Last month, preliminary testing seemed to suggest that a new — and costly — greensand filtration system could help Housatonic Water Works in filtering out excess manganese, a key cause of the deep discoloration we’ve seen in countless photos taken by residents in their kitchens and bathrooms. Banking on a relatively simple one-time upgrade to solve an aging village-wide water system’s lingering problems would be unwise. And it’s unclear whether that upgrade would address contaminants that don’t discolor the water but still pose health risks — for example, haloacetic acid, a disinfectant byproduct linked to increased cancer risks found at elevated levels in Housatonic tap water.

Will this big utility buy Housatonic's water system? Great Barrington and the company are exploring it

Then there is the possibility that Aquarion, an Eversource subsidiary with deep pockets that has been buying up small water companies, could step in. The Great Barrington Select Board met with the utility last month. Even if Aquarion does bite, any private entity would necessarily finance the overdue fixes to the Housatonic water system by increasing rates. There’s no reason to believe these rate hikes would be less than what the town would charge through municipal ownership, though thoughtful policy decisions through public ownership could perhaps diffuse those costs to ratepayers a bit. Another key potential upside of municipal ownership is that the town could qualify for grants that might ease the pain of rate hikes for repairs — grants that a private company likely couldn’t access.

What the town can bank on, unfortunately, is that this problem will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. It’s reasonable to be judicious about taking on new costs at the expense of ratepayers and taxpayers, but at some point leaders will have to bite the bullet and realize it’s increasingly unlikely that a cost-friendly, simple solution will all of a sudden rear its head.

The costs are already being borne now, from dollars and cents to growing frustration and lack of trust in local leaders to provide the most basic of services. Just ask anyone in Housatonic who draws coffee-colored water from their tap or worries their immunocompromised loved ones are at risk from contaminants in their shower water.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature in its recently passed economic development bill earmarked $100,000 for aiding Housatonic Water Works customers — but that will go toward helping folks who have to buy bottled water, instead of addressing the systemic problem that’s forcing them to avoid the water for which they’re already paying. We’re not complaining about directing financial aid to those folks, but perhaps the state’s aid could go further by helping Great Barrington with the cost of a possible merger, instead of merely offering Band-aids for the symptoms while the water system remains plagued.

The more a long-term solution is put off, the more costly its ultimate resolution becomes and the more undeserved strife Housatonic residents face. Anyone who might dismiss municipal ownership as less than ideal and too costly should acknowledge that this issue eluded an ideal resolution a long time ago — and while the can is kicked down the road, the cost is paid by the people of Housatonic.

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