Published in the June 9, 2016 edition
By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING — In its most important and far–reaching decision since the vote to build the new high and middle schools four years ago, Town Meeting Monday night opted to join the MWRA district for water supply starting in 2019, a move proponents said will ensure North Reading’s long term water supply future in a financially responsible way.
The decision to join the MWRA came in the form of votes on separate warrant articles. The first article, which authorized $1.125 million in bonding to cover the cost of planning, design and land acquisition for the MWRA interconnection through Reading, passed 94 in favor, 21 opposed. Because bonding was required, the motion needed a two–thirds vote of approval. It got 82 percent. The vote on the next article, for the town to join the MWRA district, was almost unanimous.
The meeting was attended by Reading Selectmen John Halsey, Dan Ensminger, Town Manager Bob LeLacheur and MWRA officials, including Executive Director Fred Laskey.
Basically, the voters heeded the arguments from Selectmen and other proponents that MWRA membership, in the long term, is the financially responsible option rather than investing more money in the town’s present water system, which cannot increase water supply.
“Providing water is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any government and we can’t supply enough water now for the existing needs of North Reading and those needs are going to get worse,” said Stephen Jervey, 21 Woodland Drive. “We cannot afford to delay any longer pursuing the MWRA as a water supply option.”
Selectmen Chairman Robert Mauceri said the town can’t produce the amount of water that it needs with its existing supply system and the cost of upgrading the system and the wells is significantly expensive, and can’t offer the increase in water supply that the MWRA can. “We need to supply an adequate source of water for the community, not for five, ten or 20 years, but for the long term future. This is an investment in the town, your property and the future.”
There was opposition among the voters as the debate on the articles extended for nearly an hour and a half. There were 133 registered voters at the meeting in the High School’s Performing Arts Center.
John Burns of Roach Circle said he’s lived in town for 40 years and the quality of North Reading water is good and joining the MWRA is a mistake. He wanted a committee of voters to study the issue before connecting to MWRA.
Some voters said they had friends in Reading or Stoneham who are not happy with the MWRA because of the higher rates and water quality.
“Many years ago, North Reading looked into joining the MWRA. It was not a good choice then and it’s not a good choice now,” said Pat Fillmore, 24 Fieldcrest Terrace. “It’s going to cost us lots and lots of money in the long run.”
Julie Brown, 30 Southwick Rd. worried the town was getting in over its head. She said it will be 20 years before the MWRA connection costs break even and most people in the hall won’t still be in North Reading in 20 years. “I feel it’s being forced. I’ll be able to survive, but a lot of people will not be able to.”
Proponents emphasized the MWRA connection is for water supply only and does not include sewerage and there are no plans to sewer the town. Water Superintendent Mark Clark said homes on well water would not be forced to join the water system or pay for this. MWRA water rates usually increase at a rate of 4 percent, while North Reading ‘s contract for water supply with Andover increases at 5 percent annually.
Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto stated that Reading Selectmen and town officials are pleased with their decision to join MWRA a number of years ago because the water quality improved. The MWRA’s water has consistently received the highest ratings statewide.
Mel Webster praised the Selectmen for taking these steps to provide potable water. “We don’t have enough water today to satisfy the town’s needs, we’re not going to get anymore from Andover. Andover has us over a barrel, we have no bargaining power with Andover and the Ipswich River basin limits us in what we can take from that.” He didn’t see any other options.
The switch to MWRA water will eliminate the town’s chronic water supply shortages. Just before Town Meeting began, Selectmen voted to implement Stage I outdoor water use restrictions limiting outside watering to two days a week. (See other story).
The cost for the town to “buy in” to the MWRA system is $7.68 million with another $9.9 million in capital expenditures. The MWRA water will be “wheeled” through 2.5 miles of improved pipes in Reading to a booster pump station in the vicinity of Mill Street in North Reading. The $7.68 million buy–in cost will be financed by the MWRA at 0 percent interest for the town. Mauceri called this a good deal and a perfect opportunity that shouldn’t be ignored.
The Selectmen admitted water rates will rise as a result of joining the MWRA, but stressed the rates would have to rise even if the town decides not to join, because some $10 million in capital investments will be necessary to stay with the existing infrastructure.
At the second of two public workshops held on the matter May 11, the feedback from the public was to pay for the MWRA costs through the water rate, based on water usage and not the tax rate. According to the projections, the annual impact of the $10 million debt service will be about $150 per year for an “average” single family home, plus $75 per year for the MWRA buy in cost, for a total yearly cost of $225 per year or $20 per month.
Where does all the water go?
North Reading doesn’t have a large commercial tax base, so 85 percent of the water goes for residential consumption, said Clark. The town’s peak day demands are the days when the maximum amount of water gets drawn. An average day in North Reading draws about 1.4 million gallons. Peak days go up over 2.5 million per day, which is a million gallon increase from winter to summertime.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to find out where all that water’s going. Drive through town at 4 a.m. and you’ll see – it’s the lawn sprinklers, Clark said.
Looking at the chart, the current daily deficit of 350,000 gallons may not sound like much, but that represents a 10 foot loss of storage per day in the water tanks. If you string a week or so of hot, high demand days together in the summer time, it means trouble for the water system.
This week, the town’s water system is celebrating its 80th birthday of the enabling legislation that created the North Reading Water Department, Clark said.
“If you look back at our history, every 20 years or so, we make a huge investment in the water system,” said Clark. In the 30’s, the system was founded, in the 50’s the town built its first wells. In the 70’s and 80’s the town added more wells but then lost the Stickney Well because of contamination. Around 2000, the town built a new storage tank and water treatment plant.
“Now we’re at that 20 year window again where the town needs to do something to meet water demand either for the short term or look beyond that. If you look at it in the longer term window, it makes economic sense to go to the MWRA.”
The MWRA won’t be a 15 or 20 year fix, Clark argued. The MWRA and the MDC before them have been around for over 100 years. “This is a century–long fix for our water supply.”
Former Selectman and current Finance Committee member Joe Foti is also a member of the MWRA Board of Directors. He said the MWRA has an advisory board to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely and the MWRA gives a lot of support to its member communities, which North Reading could benefit from.
The $1.125 million in bonding will be spent this way: design, permitting and bid process for improvements to the Reading water system, $100,000; design, permitting and bid process for the improvements to the North Reading water system, $175,000; site design, permitting and bid process for a pump station on Mill St., $100,000; land acquisition for the pump station construction, $750,000.
After the vote for approval was announced, Selectman Stephen O’Leary thanked the voters for their support and was conciliatory towards opponents.
“For those of you who voted no, it’s understandable. But if it had failed, you would be paying almost the same amount in water rates, just because of what we need to do to the system in order to get less. We will still listen to you. We will be back next year for the full appropriation. There will be a lot more discussion and more workshops, listening to you and allaying the concerns you have. This is a huge step for North Reading in securing its future.”