Our Opinion: Pittsfield confronts water infrastructure reality

After years of postponements of the inevitable, Pittsfield is facing the reality of its wastewater treatment issues. Under threat of EPA penalties, the city must begin construction of plant upgrades that will limit dangerous amounts of aluminum and phosphorus currently polluting the Housatonic River. To pay for this environmentally necessary upgrade, Pittsfield residents will have to dig a little deeper, and Mayor Linda Tyer and the Pittsfield City Council will get the blame, even though the problem did not originate on their watch.

To hold the mayor and a majority of city councilors responsible for anything other than crafting a plan to resolve the pressing issue would be an error. The regional EPA had the city's back against the wall, demanding progress on a project whose need dates back at least a decade. Over the seven-year period that Pittsfield leaders have devised for the imposition of staggered rate increases, sewer rates will triple, amounting to hundreds of dollars per year for the average two-toilet family home.

Past municipal administrations, perhaps fearful of citizen blowback, kicked the sewage treatment problem can down the road. The current administration finds itself at that road's dead end. Specious counter-arguments that the Housatonic is already polluted carry no weight with the EPA, nor should they. Pittsfield has already spent a great deal of money cleaning up the Housatonic after GE polluted it with PCBs, and in any case, sewage effluent is a different kind of pollution that it would be environmentally irresponsible to allow to continue.

Pittsfield's sewer rates fall below state averages, so the city has been benefiting from artificially low rates for years, considering that everyone was aware of the looming expense. Even without EPA penalties, addressing the payment mechanism sooner would have saved Pittsfielders money, but that risked officials' being flushed out of office. As it stands, Mayor Tyer has been skillful at negotiating low-interest loans to help finance the project and minimize impact on ratepayers.

While the sewer project, and means to begin paying for it, are matters of current urgency, water rates will also rise in order to finance water infrastructure projects. They won't be as drastic, but since homeowner bills combine the two rates, the sticker shock will be compounded. Ratepayers would do well to remind themselves that the wastewater upgrade is a necessary expense, and cannot be avoided. Mayor Tyer also counseled those without meters that having metered water is cheaper than the flat per-toilet assessment, and that it would be wise to have one installed.

This is one bullet that Pittsfielders who benefit from the city's water plants and infrastructure will have to bite. But it will lead to a cleaner river and better water systems for decades to come.


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