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Our Opinion: It's past time for Great Barrington to take over struggling Housatonic Water Works

Housatonic water problems (copy) (copy)

Rachel Louchen's son, 3, takes a bath in the family's Housatonic home. Louchen, who sent this photo to The Eagle a week ago, said she wanted to make this photo public to illustrate what Housatonic residents are dealing with.

Recently, a picture appeared in the pages of The Berkshire Eagle showing a toddler in a tub filled with what looked more like rust-tinged sludge than bathing water.

It wasn’t a photo from a war-torn region or a developing nation. It was a snapshot from a quiet, otherwise pleasant hamlet of a municipality that’s been called the best small town in America. It is long past time for that town to do something about it.

The boy’s mother, Rachel Louchen, of Housatonic, sent it to our newsroom in hopes of publicizing an up-close look at the protracted issues with the main source of water for this Great Barrington village and the effects on the folks who live there.

Unfortunately for customers of the privately owned Housatonic Water Works Co., heavily discolored and even contaminated water is nothing new. Like many of her neighbors who pay for this service through their utility bills, Ms. Louchen is used to not relying on the water that comes out of the taps and pipes in her own home. Her family uses bottled water for drinking and cooking. They haul laundry to another location and bathe elsewhere, too. She told The Eagle she typically brings her son to a friend’s outdoor shower. On a recent weekday morning, though, her son desperately needed an unplanned bath. When Ms. Louchen filled her tub, she told The Eagle, it was like “mud coming out of my faucet.” The resultant picture shows that’s not much of an exaggeration.

James Mercer, co-owner and treasurer of the waterworks, has said the summer’s higher temperatures have worsened a discoloration problem related to the presence of manganese in the company’s Long Pond source..

It’s worth noting that the manganese, while the main contributor to the water color issues, is not the only waterborne worry the utility and its customers have had to fret. Earlier this year, state regulators asked Housatonic Water Works to address elevated levels of haloacetic acid, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer, found in water samples. And while the water company and regulators say the level of manganese present doesn’t make the water unsafe, that’s tough to swallow for people drawing a ruddy glass of water from their sink and seeing their clothes stained brown after washing them. Whatever the water company can say about the water technically being safe, a picture speaks a thousand words — and a 3-year-old up to his waist in cloudy brown liquid screams unacceptable.

Hot summers are to be expected, and whether it’s the manganese or other issues, these water woes distressing residents aren’t going away without major intervention, which the water company is seemingly not keen to address in a timely manner even as those woes worsen. We believe the only solution that promises real relief to Housatonic residents on a reasonable time table is for the town of Great Barrington to take the Housatonic Water Works by eminent domain.

While the town is not responsible for the sorry state of water flowing into hundreds of households and businesses, local leaders have acknowledged the responsibility to help constituents affected by this standing problem. The Great Barrington Housing Authority is purchasing bottled water for residents at the subsidized Flag Rock Village low-income housing complex at a rate of two gallons per person per week. While the housing authority is not locally funded, taxpayers still cover this cost indirectly, as the authority is funded by the State Department of Housing and Community Development. It’s worth noting, too, that the private water company has rebuffed local health officials’ requests to reimburse the housing agency and Housatonic residents for bottled water purchases.

Great Barrington health officials to 'push' town to fund bottled water for embattled Housatonic residents

Great Barrington health officials are asking town leaders to send bottled water to residents, but this amounts to a Band-Aid on the failing infrastructure that brings water to a critical fraction of local residents. The town taking the water works is the only serious systemic solution on the table.

That would require an audit and evaluation by the state Department of Public Utilities, but it’s an option that some in Great Barrington, including some recent petitioners, have explored. Two other Massachusetts municipalities — Hingham and Milton — recently made similar moves by acquiring the private water companies that had served those communities with similarly problematic results for residents.

Yes, this would cost the town considerably more than a few shipments of Poland Springs, although the obviously needed repairs and maintenance to the struggling water works should militate against a prohibitively high fair market price. And with a pot of COVID-related federal funds recently injected into Great Barrington’s coffers, there’s likely no better time than the present.

It’s also worth considering the price currently being paid, disproportionately borne by Housatonic families through no fault of their own. Some of that is counted in dollars and sense: purchasing bottled drinking water on top of paying a utility bill that’s supposed to provide that service; using a laundromat even if one has a washer at home; the gasoline, never mind the stress, spent tackling these extra errands.

Then there are the more intangible impacts. The town has been forced to alter its recent law restricting the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in town. Because of the higher need for bottled water in Housatonic, stores in the village are exempted from the law — undercutting not just the consistency of municipal rules but the environmental goals that underpin them.

Of course, there is also the drain on the most basic quality-of-life expectations and the expected discontent that arises when this problem persistently bubbles up in people’s kitchens and bathrooms. Last month, those feeling that discontent made it highly visible to others by hanging banners reading “Stop paying your water bills” over a main roadway in downtown Housatonic.

Compared to all this, taking the Housatonic Water Works through eminent domain is worth the price. The alternative price — the dysfunction and disservice to families like Ms. Louchen’s in the best small town in America — is unsustainable.

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