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Housatonic Water Works
The pristine water of Long Pond is the source of water for the Housatonic Water Works system that serves Housatonic. A private company, Housatonic Water Works draws its water from Long Pond for its 1,400 customers and for fire protection in the hamlet of Housatonic. By the time the water reaches customers, it is discolored with debris from 100-year-old mains.

Housatonic’s water woes persist: Old pipes deliver tainted water

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By Saturday, Aug 4, 2018 News 18

Water filter clogged with rust colored debris after 24 hours in basement of Housatonic residence.

Housatonic —Typically, when a company offers a product that consumers are not happy with, they can simply take their business elsewhere. Such is not the case with a water company.

Whether municipal or private, the water company essentially has a monopoly on water service since it would be impractical to have competing companies running competing lines down the same street serving the same homes and businesses. 

So when customers are dissatisfied, as they were July 26 when the private Housatonic Water Works (HWW) held an informational meeting, they can’t switch providers — or in the case of a municipally owned system — go running to their elected officials and demand action.

About 25 customers showed up at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street. Most were concerned about the discoloration of the water. Both Housatonic Water Works treasurer Jim Mercer and state regulators insist the water is safe to drink but customers cannot tolerate the brownish color. 

Newly installed filter before contamination. This and the photo above were taken of the water filter exactly 24 hours apart. 4:25 p.m. Thursday July 26 and 4:25 p.m. Friday July 27.

In an interview, Mercer, whose family has owned the company since 1984, said the so-called “roily water” is caused by disturbances such as hydrant usage and water main breaks. The resulting commotion in the lines causes the aging cast-iron pipes to shed and the iron flakes discolor the water.

This problem is made worse, he said, because the state Department of Environmental Protection has required the company to increase chlorine levels, which tends to add to the corrosion; so does warmer water and the increased usage associated with the summer months.

“We were required to increase amount of chlorine in the water,” Mercer explained. “It reacts with metal and creates rust … Once we get permission from DEP to lower chlorine levels, we think it will get better.” 

Mercer has initiated another corrosion control program that involved introducing a “buffer” ingredient to the water. The substance coats the pipes and helps to control the roily water. 

Mercer emphasized that private water companies are regulated not only by the DEP but by the state Department of Public Utilities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“All private water companies are regulated much like public utilities,” Mercer said. “They need to meet the same standards. The water is regularly tested and disinfected … There are state and federal regs that we all must meet. Plus, we always publish our notifications.” 

On left, a glass containing water from a tap in Housatonic; at right, by comparison, a glass of filtered water.

The company was granted a 30 percent rate increase two years ago, in part to fund upgrades because the system has had some issues with water quality monitoring over the years. 

HWW has worked to replace some of the company’s 16 miles of water mains, about 80 percent of which are over 100 years old. Some, Mercer said, are “original issues from 1888,” when the water company was founded to service the mills that had sprung up in the village. The company draws its water from nearby Long Pond, which functions as a reservoir for the village. 

And there have been questions raised about whether the HWW fire hydrants are up to the task. Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger, whose department rents the hydrants from HWW, has complained that the Housatonic hydrants have a water-flow problem. 

Recent water main replacements include Grove, North and Wyantenuck streets last year, along with about 1,000 feet of line from the Park Street bridge to the Housatonic fire station. But there are many miles remaining that need upgrading. 

HWW hydrant at fire station in Housatonic. Photo: David Scribner

As for further replacements, Mercer said the state Department of Public Utilities rejected his plans because the resulting rate increase would have been unacceptable to state regulators. That puts Housatonic Water Works between a rock and hard place. 

In addition, infrastructure improvements for private water companies are more expensive than they are for government-owned utilities. Private companies are not eligible for most of the grants and low-interest bonds that government utilities enjoy. And private companies have shareholders to satisfy. In layman’s terms, that means they must also make a profit.

That raises the inevitable question of the sustainability of a small undercapitalized water company whose infrastructure improvements would result in debt service that could push rates to punishing levels. 

There have been whispers among town officials and the rank-and-file alike that the town should simply buy out HWW and absorb it into the Great Barrington Fire District, which functions as the municipal water department in Great Barrington. That way, any debt incurred for infrastructure improvements could be spread out over more ratepayers.

The fire district serves almost 1,700 customers and 300 fire hydrants. Housatonic Water Works, which serves the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, as well as small adjoining portions of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, serves roughly half that many. 

Walter “Buddy” Atwood III heads the fire district’s Prudential Committee and has sat on that panel since 1998. He agreed that the fire district has much easier access to capital than a private water company. Click here to see the district’s annual report for 2016, the most recent available on its website. 

“Because we’re taxpayer funded, there are a wider range of state and federal grants for us,” Atwood explained. “And we’re looking for them all the time.” 

In the Housie Dome Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin addresses a panel from the Department of Public Utilities during a hearing in 2016 on HWW water rates. Photo: David Scribner

But the amount of the grants is probably less than most people think. For example, during the Main Street reconstruction project that concluded in 2015, the district spent $650,000 to replace water mains in the core of downtown, but only was able to secure grants totalling about $150,000. The balance of $500,000 had to be borrowed and paid back over 40 years at 2 percent interest.  

The district is currently in the early stages of replacing 6,000 linear feet of water mains on Route 7 and 23 between the St. James Place intersection and the cross-country line from the Green River pump station on Maple Avenue (Route 23). Construction began July 30, and is expected to end by Dec. 15. 

Another key difference between the fire district and HWW is that the district has taxing authority. Persons owning property in the district must pay an annual assessment and, if they are connected the system, they must pay a metered rate on top of the standard assessment.  

Both Mercer and Atwood agreed that this is the reason why HWW’s rates appear to be higher: the company does not have taxing authority and cannot impose a standing annual assessment, so its consumption rates must more accurately reflect the cost of running the company. 

Atwood, who recently concluded a long stint on the town Finance Committee and served two years as chairman of the Board of Selectmen in the 1990s, said the idea of the town or the fire district taking over HWW has been floated before. He said he did not think the proposition would pass at a town meeting. 

In August of 2016 Great Barrington Selectboard announced a settlement agreement for two phases of a Housatonic Water Works rate hike that would lessen the brunt of a negotiated increase of 30 percent over two years. Photo: David Scribner

“The takeover discussion has happened numerous times,” Atwood recalled. “The difficulty is if the town buys it and they borrow $25 million to fix the system, the fire district people will feel like they’re paying twice for water.” 

In an interview, Selectman Ed Abrahams said that, while he is not advocating for the fire district to take over HWW, there would surely be some savings since fewer employees would be required to maintain a unified system. 

Abrahams said he has seen the idea of town takeover of the HWW discussed on social media but it has not come up formally in Town Hall. 

“I’m open to discussing anything but I must admit I have no idea what it means in terms of cost,” Abrahams said. “The problem is any money spent on upgrades goes into rates. On one level, spreading it out over more customers does make sense.” 

The costs for the fire district water operations and debt service are covered by an enterprise fund, which means only ratepayers and those with property in the district pay the costs, not town taxpayers outside the district who have private wells. 

“If it comes up, we would consider it but I have heard no details,” Abrahams added. 

There is precedent for municipal takeovers of private water companies in Massachusetts. Aquarion Water Company, which was recently acquired by the electric utility behemoth Eversource, has been the object of multiple lawsuits from towns such as Hingham and Oxford. The litigation was largely related to disagreements on a purchase price.

Closer to home, the Hutchinson Water Company, a tiny and troubled operation that serves about 100 homes in the Hutchinson Acres development in Cheshire, has actually asked the town to take control of it. But that has led to objections on the part of one selectman who said of that water company, “They want us to take over their problems.” The matter has been referred to the Cheshire water department for review.

Even closer to home, the former Sheffield Water Company, a private company which serves about 500 customers and was acquired by the Connecticut-based Mountain Water Systems last year, wants to increase rates by 58 percent. As you might expect, the proposed increase has caused concern, but no talk of a town takeover.

According to the DPU, there are 18 private water companies serving Massachusetts. They range from one-well operations serving a handful of customers to Aquarion, which serves almost 20,000 customers in the eastern and central parts of the state. Click here to see the list. Aquarion also serves several towns in the northern part of neighboring Litchfield County, Conn., including Canaan, Cornwall, Salisbury and Norfolk.

Housatonic resident Jane Wright, right, addresses Department of Public Utilities commissioners  at public hearing at the Housie Dome in January of 2016 that is considering a request for a 34 percent rate increase for Housatonic Water Works. To her right, in white shirt, is Housatonic Water Works (HWW) attorney William Martin. To his right is HWW president James Mercer. Photo: Heather Bellow

According to Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit group that supports public ownership of water companies, investor-owned companies moved to buy or manage public water departments in the ‘80s and ‘90s when cash-strapped municipalities were facing enormous capital improvement costs. That trend has started to reverse itself, said Mary Grant, who directs the water campaign for Food & Water Watch. 

“From 2007 to 2014, we saw a shift to more people being served by public water companies,” Grant said. “Private companies grew slightly in places like New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Interestingly, conversion from private to public was most common in the South where there is much municipal growth.”

Using numbers from the EPA, the group estimated that between October 2007 and October 2011, the number of Americans served by private water companies declined by 16 percent. During that same period, the number served by public ones rose by 8 percent. 

“There are lots of benefits of consolidation under a public entity,” Grant said. “One entity can achieve economies of scale, which reduces purchasing costs.” 

Grants said the cost of borrowing is typically 10 percent higher for the private sector because investor-owned companies cannot borrow on the less expensive municipal bond markets.

“Government borrowing is much cheaper,” Grant explained. “Plus, private companies must pay taxes.” 

Though such does not appear to be the case in Housatonic and Great Barrington, water-use rates in the private sector are typically higher. The main drivers, as Grant sees it, is the need for infrastructure improvements and “access to capital.” 

If a municipality thinks a private water company is not serving the community well, “the only recourse is to seek public purchase of the system,” Grant added. Or in some cases the state can put poorly run systems under receivership, though that is a extreme measure taken only when the company becomes insolvent or public health is threatened — neither of which is the case in Housatonic.

Grant’s organization “encourages companies to come to the table voluntarily,” even as eminent domain is a last resort. Grant said smaller companies are more likely to negotiate a sale price in good faith and that eminent domain is far more likely against a large company. 

For example, when the South Shore town of Hingham moved to acquire the private system from Aquarion, the town said the system was worth $49.9 million, while Aquarion insisted it was “worth at least $96.1 million and perhaps as much as $144 million,” according to the Patriot Ledger of Quincy. The town lost the resulting lawsuit on appeal and the water system remains in private hands.

Longtime HWW ratepayer Fred Clark, an architect and former Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member, said there would be pros and cons to a town takover. On the one hand, HWW owns what Clark calls “a tremendous water reservoir, Long Pond.” 

“This would give the fire district a great reserve that they do not have now — that is, Housatonic Water has excess capacity and of high quality,” Clark said in an email. “The downside is that the fire district would inherit an aging distribution system. The main storage and filtration plant has had a lot of upgrades, so the liability is in the distribution pipes.” 

As for whether he is open to selling HWW, Mercer was playing his cards close to his vest: “We’re a private company. By statute, they have right to buy us out for fair market value, but we’re not actively looking to sell anything.”

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18 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    Perfect timing for the “bottle ban” meeting…lol
    Really, though, maybe this is a place where many can be satisfied. This is not about the water company, per se. This is about the residents of Great Barrington who reside in the section we refer to as Housatonic. They are our friends, neighbors and an important part of Great Barrington.
    Maybe the Fire District can take it over (purcase, whatever) and maybe we add a 5cent Town surcharge on water bottles to pay for upgrades to the filtration and delivery system.

  2. W.C. says:

    Somehow, someone should take the company over. Certainly not the Town since it has proven it could manage its way out of a wet paper bag.

  3. John says:

    Government always creates problems so that government can get bigger.
    Imagine how much taxes and water rates would go up if the government did a hostile takeover? It’s too bad the housatonic water company is not allowed to perform upgrades it thinks are best. Government red tape everywhere.
    A Private well is always the best route of you can.

  4. Ted B. says:

    If you live in Housatonic as I do , there’s only one thing to do ……bend over !
    Until election day and tax time !
    It’s NOT just water ……it’s LIFE !
    We are beings who are mostly water .
    Humans will die in 3 weeks without food .
    But a mere 3 days without water !
    Do you remember after 9/11 there was talk of all water systems having a back up in case of terrorist activity ?
    There was talk of GB taking over the Housatonic Water System, that’s the only right thing to do , because they can get reasonable funding to take care of the aging system !
    To bad HWW just didn’t upgrade a little at a time and replace the aging system !

  5. Joseph Method says:

    I live in Housatonic and although we (usually) don’t have brown water I’d like to see a buyout happen. People just don’t trust their water here anymore. You can argue about whether that perception is fair but at this point it doesn’t really matter. People need to trust their water.

    1. Joseph Method says:

      To be fair I think the only time we had brown water was when they were installing new pipes across the bridge over the Housatonic and it was brief.

  6. Michelle Loubert says:

    Hi everyone: Lived on Park Street 15 years. The only time water was the least bit discolored was when lines were flushed which was expected. Our home on Division Street is also served by Housatonic Water. The water is like spring water, clear and cold. This was reported to the Edge when I was asked. All this being said, there is clearly an issue with the water supply to SOME HWW customers. That is sufficient for HWW and town officials to be alarmed and investigate then formulate a plan. On another note, with the single use water bottle ban (not yet approved by the Attorney General’s Office) there is the topic of water stations. If there is a water quality issue in Housatonic, will a water station be successful? And what about the natural spring at the town owned Cook’s Garage? There is much to discuss! Another committee?

    1. Joseph Method says:

      A Water Committee is a great idea. It could help keep attention on these issues.

  7. Michelle Loubert says:

    Also, Terry wrote of other communities that assumed ownership of private water companies but didn’t mention Lenox assuming the responsibility of the water resource that supplied Lenoxdale…right in our backyard. This was brought to my attention at the time of the rate hearing before the state. Looks like there are options to be researched.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Michelle, I always appreciate your comments and the fresh insight you bring into so many of the discussions here. Thanks, and keep it up.

      1. Michelle Loubert says:

        Thank you, Steve. I apologize for not being at the HWW meeting; I was attending a BHRSD Finance Committee meeting.

  8. Terry Cowgill says:

    Thanks Michelle. I did not know about that. Indeed, it looks like the entire Lenox water system was in private hands until 1985, when “a special town meeting appropriated close to $6MM for the town’s share of the Washington Mountain Watershed Project which included a water treatment plant, storage tank, water transmission plan, transmission main and a water treatment plant for the existing Root Reservoir.”


    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Rep. Pignatelli would be able to provide you with information on this matter. He was my information resource regarding the Lenoxdale to Lenox water; knows the historical details. You may want to look into it further; it will be relevant at some point if not already.

  9. Margaret McLallen says:

    It’s brown today! Not very appetizing.

  10. Ted B. says:

    ” Little had been done to update the water company’s infrastructure since the 1880s. The new owners had their work cut out for them! But without hesitation, the Mercers methodically and enthusiastically began to upgrade the entire operation—striving to improve water quality and deliver consistent water pressure throughout the distribution system. Comprised of 87,570 feet of pipe (more than 16 miles), the entire system was reviewed. Water meters were installed in all customers’ homes and businesses. In recent decades, numerous water lines and hydrants have been repaired, updated and replaced throughout the system. A substantial investment was made as facilities were modernized at Long Pond reservoir. This included construction of a modern filtration and purification system, clearwell basin and million-gallon storage tank. ”
    The above is directly from the HHW website ! NOTICE it says ” the Mercers methodically and enthusiastically began to upgrade the entire operation—striving to improve water quality and deliver consistent water pressure throughout the distribution system. ”
    Ya…right !?
    Michelle the town of Great Barrington has taken the Cooks garage over back taxes etc. !

  11. Carl Stewart says:

    The fact that some customers of the Housatonic Water Works have “spring-like, clear and cold” water, as Ms. Loubert does, must offer very small consolation to the customers who have brown water. Even if it is conceded that the water is safe to drink, that doesn’t mean that the water company is living up to their end of the bargain. “Safe” water simply means that it probably won’t make you sick, but can Housatonic Water Works (“HWW”) offer sufficient assurance that it will have no deleterious effects on a 1-year old who drinks it? In addition, potable water is not necessarily good water. You may not notice it, but your clothes come out of the washing machine stained by the rust; likewise your dishes and glasses from the dishwasher. And this isn’t a temporary stain; a re-wash will simply exacerbate the problem.

    “What can we do?” ask the residents of Housatonic, “they are the only game in town.” A few things come to mind:

    A. There is a contract between HWW and the consumer. It may not be a written contract, but contracts are more frequently oral or implied than they are written. It is a simple contract; I, the consumer will pay you to supply water and you, the water company will supply good quality water. They are not supplying good quality water and thus they are in breach of their contract with you. What, if anything, can you do about this? Think creatively and I’ll bet you come up with something.

    B. If I were a customer of HWW, I’d tell them that I expect them to treat the water coming into my house so that it reaches an acceptable standard. Can they do that? Of course they can, in the same way that Culligan or some other water treatment company is able to treat the water coming from a well, ridding it of rust, and other impurities. Will it cost HWW money? Yes, it will but isn’t it fair to ask them to provide good water that doesn’t ruin your clothing, your dinnerware, and possibly your health?

    1. Tess Diamond says:

      It seems like customers on rt. 41 are disproportionately affected. We have terribly brown water followed by bouts of over-chlorinated chemical smelling water. It’s appaling

  12. Than T Nguyen says:

    This is a very important issue for our communities. Maintaining the operating integrity of water system and preventing corrosion in pipes and fixtures can help prevent serious health hazards as well as reduce the high cost to repair or replace down the road.
    Than Nguyen

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