Water company turning off the tap?

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 1:00pm

It will become more difficult for new customers to tap into town water in the near future, as the Block Island Water Company struggles to keep up with demand. On Monday the Water Commission voted to take a more active role in the application process, reviewing each applicant for new water allocations on a case-by-case basis.

“The water district finds itself at a crossroads with available water capacity,” Water Superintendent John Breunig wrote in a memo to the Board of Commissioners for the September 20 meeting. “It’s the simple math of development and new customers; for 62 days of summer the customers will be using more water than can be made at the facility on any given day,” he told the board at the meeting.

Breunig has been talking about potential water shortfalls for months, and in July pointed out his concerns with the way the Water Commission calculates customer allocation. In a nutshell, the allocation formula averages the usage for July, August, and September to come up with the amounts. He says the problem is that including September usage in the calculation, which is significantly lower than usage in July and August, drags the average down. This makes it look like less water is being used, and more water is available to allocate to customers.

As the water company trends toward absolute capacity, it becomes more critical to accurately reflect how much water is actually needed and how much water is actually available. Breunig would like to recalculate the formulas so they are more accurate and provide a better picture of actual water need in the peak months of July and August.

There is also the looming issue of reaching maximum capacity. Currently the water company can produce about 190,000 gallons of water a day operating at 100 percent capacity using its six current wells and two storage tanks. The system typically runs at 80 percent capacity (152,000 gallons), to allow a buffer. Over this summer, daily water usage exceeded 160,000 gallons several times in July and August, with monthly usage up nine percent from 2020. Breunig suggests increasing capacity and storage through more wells and storage tanks.

But capital improvements of this size and scope take time and money.
“It’s two years away,” Breunig told the commission when asked about adding another storage tank at the water company, estimating the cost at $300,000 to $400,000 “just for the tank and footing.”

In the meantime, he suggested three options for the board to consider in order to address near future water allocations.

Option one: “Make no new water allocations to any new or existing customers until water capacity and storage are increased.” Currently, when an existing customer goes over their allocated limit, they have the opportunity to purchase more allocation rather than pay a fine. Under this option, current customers would not be able to increase their allotments and no new customers would be able to come online.
Option two: “Make a small amount of water allocation available for existing and single-family dwellings/ low impact accounts; board review of all allocation purchases.” Under this option the water company would accept new residential customers, but no new commercial ones. For examples of the impact of commercial customers Breunig mentioned the Grove Inn and Finn’s as two new accounts this summer, although the Grove was not open and Finn’s was not open the whole summer. Finn’s has its own well, but also owns allocation rights and chose to exercise them this year.
Breunig estimates these two customers “will add at least 10,000 gallons per day in July and August. 10,000 gallons is 5.2 percent of the total daily production of the water treatment facility.”

Complicating matters on the commercial side are other businesses, such as the National and Harborside Hotels, which have their own shared well but are allocated water as standby customers. Currently, due to a problem with their well pump, these two businesses are utilizing town water.
Option three: “Continue to calculate and sell water allocation as we have in the past.” According to Breunig, this option could lead to overselling allocation and the consequent water usage overcoming capacity during peak months.
Chair of the Water Commission Brad Marthens said he preferred option two, as “we need something available for new homes.” Breunig pointed out that some new customers are not new homes, as he has received several calls for existing homes with wells wanting to switch over to town water. He blamed aging wells that are reaching the end of their expected lifespan, telling the board he had received more calls of this type in the past two years than ever before.
Board member Sandra Finizia said she liked option two as well, but was worried about shutting new customers out entirely. “It concerns me that a person who is actually in the water district (could) call and be told ‘no, sorry’.”
The board of commissioners ultimately agreed with her, voting to adopt option two but with the understanding that all applications, residential and commercial, would be reviewed by the board, with no applicant denied outright. The board indicated it would make suggestions, recommendations, and possible requirements for high-usage commercial customers, such as private storage tanks to alleviate the demand on the system.
As Sewer Commission Chair Pete McNerney told the rest of the board: “There’s some other things that can be done, that the individual customer can make a conscious decision to do, and may loosen things up for the water company.”