Water capacity puts future growth in jeopardy

Thu, 10/21/2021 - 3:15pm
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Water Superintendent John Breunig has been trying to get the attention of the town and the broader community on an issue of utmost importance: the Water Department’s infrastructure can not support future growth within the district, much less outside its official boundaries.
On Monday, Oct. 18, Breunig got the chance at a special meeting between the Town Council and the Water and Sewer Commissions when they had
their annual joint meeting to go over and approve their management agreement. The agreement is much the same from year to year, but with the addition of a new director of public works that is, for the first time, separate from the town manager’s position, the language needed to be tweaked. Although there was some discussion on the use and possible interpretations of the phrase “and/or,” the management agreement was approved
unanimously by those present.
Members of the Water District who choose to purchase their water receive an allocation of a set number of gallons they may use between July and September. If they go over that allocation they either pay a penalty or they may purchase an additional allocation and have the amount of the penalty applied to the cost.
With recent growth in the commercial district, there has been more demand for water, and Breunig began to look at how allocations are determined and whether it was logical. He found it didn’t really make sense to include September in calculations as usage drops off dramatically in that month. But, when he looked at only July and August and compared the actual water flows to what can be produced by the water company, he found that the island was pushing up against a limit.
In a letter to the Town Council attached to the agenda for the meeting, Breunig wrote: “The Water District would need to invest in larger infrastructure if we are to keep up with development over the next two to five years and beyond. There are four major engineering components to increasing water capacity; raw water supply, treatment capacity, storage capacity and concentrate water removal/treatment capacity.”

Breunig, assisted by the Water and Sewer Commissions’ attorney David Petrarca, is doing a study of the Water District to try to determine a “build-out capacity,” whereby they are attempting to predict what could still be built in the future and then figure out what they need to do to meet it. “I can’t just come up with eight new wells,” said Breunig.
There is another survey underway also. The second one is being conducted by the University of Rhode Island and is much broader in that the study is trying to do a “water budget” for the island as a whole.
Councilor Martha Ball said she looks at real estate ads for rental homes that sleep 12 to 20 people. Those who receive bills for water know how much they use, she said, but if one is on a well, there is no meter involved to measure water use. “In the Water District we have some controls,”
she said, “but outside [the district] people spending a lot of money are not turning off the tap.” She mentioned such luxury items as swimming pools and jacuzzis.
Breunig said that the culture had changed, and he understood that people paying $6,000 to rent a house for a week are not apt to think about water use, or conserve it. He also mentioned the installation of irrigation systems in the water district that are adding to the problem.
“We’re hitting on the reason we started the infrastructure committee,” said Second Warden Sven Risom. “They have an important role to bring everything together” including sewer, water, and electricity, which is also at near-capacity on some of the circuits.
“What infrastructure committee?” seemed to be the question many in the room had. Town Manager Maryanne Crawford said it was a “staff committee,” and was vague as to the make-up and as to whether or not it had actually met, although she did say: “John [Breunig] and I constantly talk about this.”
Councilor Keith Stover wanted to get back to the subject of growth in a more philosophical way – whether the island as a community should build for growth or limit it.

Breunig said he and Sewer Department Dylan Chase had attended a Planning Board meeting last winter to discuss the matter. “Nobody wanted to talk about it.” He added that they had been scheduled last on an agenda for a meeting that lasted three hours before the item even came up.
Compounding the capacity problem is who is going to pay for it when the additional capacity is only needed, and therefore generating revenues, for two months of the year – July and August. Should the cost be borne by year-round residents of the water and sewer districts, whose use doesn’t vary much? Should it be “socialized” among all taxpayers? Or, should there be a moratorium on hooking up to town water? The water company has already denied two new, large, potential customers this year because they are not in the district already – the Block Island State Airport and the Rose Farm Inn.
Breunig said that given the two-month window revenue window, financing was extremely difficult and risky. “The higher the cliff, the longer the fall,” he said.