Town water under pressure
The Block Island Water Company is located in a quaint and picturesque setting next to Sands Pond, the second largest body of fresh water on the island. The site was chosen in 1887 since it is slightly elevated from the downtown area and provides some
natural water pressure through gravity.
Originally, the water company relied on a windmill-powered pump to pump water into one big wooden tank, with a tank float made from an old beer keg. The two new tanks were put in years ago, one in 1986 and one in 1993, with each having a capacity of 150,000 gallons.
The two massive water tanks sit to the side of the water company building, the small size of the building making them look bigger than they actually are. Tanks on the mainland dwarf these tanks by comparison, and can accommodate a much larger water
Water Superintendent John Breunig is more than a little worried about the demand placed on the tanks and the system in general.
The BI Water Company has run a reverse osmosis system since 2002, utilizing three 250-foot wells that reach below the freshwater table used by the private residential wells. Its wells reach through the hard clay layer under the freshwater, and into the brackish, non-potable water underneath. This deep level of salty water is affected by the tides, and Breunig says when he charts the water levels in the wells, it looks like a tidal chart.
Breunig describes the system as “having a small footprint compared with traditional systems, ones that need large tanks for retention time and settling out.” The footprint of the building and the reverse osmosis machinery is small, as pipes feed water from the wells to pass through the various pre-filters and filters before finally forcing the water at 200 psi through the semi-permeable membranes. This process separates the water, with the various impurities, such as manganese, iron, and salt being concentrated into about 20 percent of the water. This 20 percent is sent to the Block Island Sewer Plant for processing. The remaining 80 percent is clear, fresh, potable water that is sent to customers.
The system on Block Island can produce 192,000 gallons a day, from the 240,000 gallons that are pumped into it. This is a lot more than is needed in the winter months when demand hovers around 25,000 gallons a day. Breunig says the difficulty is in sizing up to the summer months and paring down in the winter. He says they have to have the capability to meet the demand in the summer months, which is actually only a short window for water demand and consequently revenue. Like the rest of the island, the water company must survive the winter months with a drastically reduced income.
“We have to keep the machinery operational in the winter too,” Breunig says, comparing it to running a car in the winter months, just to keep things moving a little bit.
Breunig credits the federal funding in the form of U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans the water company has received since becoming a public utility in the 1980s with many of the upgrades and improvements to the facility, along with the rate payers.
He says: “We have to size for the biggest weekend, but also maintain throughout the year, and grants and loans make it possible.”
Financial concerns aside, Breunig is most concerned about the pace of growth and the pressures on infrastructure that manifest
themselves at the water company. In the time Breunig has been with the water company, he has seen the daily usage surge.
“What used to be our highest usage on the fourth of July, fifteen years ago, is just a regular day now,” Breunig says. “Private development often outpaces public development. They can build a hotel over a winter, but the water tank I may need to add to
accommodate it can take three or four years to build.”
He says these are things that should be community decisions, though.
“Do we keep up with development pressures? That should be a town or community decision,” he said.
Breunig says the problem with water supply is not water quantity.
“We have a good source, that is drought resistant because of the ocean influence. We aren’t taking water from the upper lens that the rest of the island uses.” (The upper lens is the sole source aquifer of freshwater used by private wells.) Breunig points out, though, that he is close to capacity for water that can be processed.
Right now, the water company processes around 240,000 gallons a day, resulting in 192,000 gallons of potable water. But on
Monday, June 28, 130,000 gallons flowed out of the water company to customers, the biggest June day Breunig has seen. And with the numbers Breunig is seeing so far this summer, he is not sure the system can keep up. According to his data, the water usage so far this summer outpaces 2019, the last “normal” year.
“We are going to top 200,000 gallons a day this summer, which is something we’ve never done,” he says. It is also more than the
system is set up to process.
Breunig went on to explain that with two tanks that can only hold 150,000 gallons each, it will be a real struggle to get the tanks full again during extremely high usage like he expects this summer.
One option is to build another tank, which could help alleviate the summer rush by providing some reserves, but he points out that
if you have a water tank full of water you have to use it before it goes stale. With such low usage during the winter it might take too long to cycle through three tanks. And Breunig questions whether the year-round customers should be saddled with higher rates to pay for the increasing summer customers and the infrastructure pressure they bring.
Another option to alleviate the pressure is water restrictions, which Breunig brought up at the meeting of the Water and Sewer
Commission on June 21. Breunig points out that outdoor watering uses a lot of water, and there were instances last summer of
private wells going dry.
“The levels of usage this year are well above the norms, and questions like these are what keep me up at night,” Breunig said.
A simple thing everyone can do, Breunig says, is to be mindful of water usage and self regulate, especially on weekends. This can
help as a short-term solution, but ultimately the island needs to improve water company infrastructure to accommodate these
summer surges, whether it's a new tank, more wells, or a larger processing facility.
“There’s plenty of water,” Breunig says. “But it’s about the infrastructure.”