News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 7, 2013
Standpipe down to less than half; water “missing” in Stonington
Low water is fire-fighting danger

by Alice Wilkinson

The Stonington selectmen spent an hour on water company business at their February 4 meeting, but adjourned without learning what they wanted to know.

The selectmen, who are officers of the water company, had been told informally that the standpipe was down to half last week.

A major concern is that if there is a fire, there won’t be sufficient water to put it out.

This week Superintendent Roger Stone told them that the water in the pipe is now down to two-fifths, and that he doesn’t know where it is going.

“I put 30,000 gallons of water in one day [pumping from the wells] and it didn’t increase the pressure,” he said. That means it didn’t get into the standpipe, which stores the water for the water company.

“The town isn’t metering 30,000 gallons a day,” he added.

Although there was one leak he found last week on Highland Avenue, he said that wasn’t enough water to account for the loss. Further, even though some customers are allowing a “pencil” width amount of water to flow when it is very cold, to prevent freezing, that isn’t enough to account for it either, he added.

Selectman Donna Brewer, who is also president of the water company, asked Roger why he hadn’t let her, or any of the other officers of the water company, know about the problem when he noticed it.

“If it has been going on for two weeks, why didn’t I get a call?”

“I was trying to straighten it out, “he explained.

Selectman Richard Larrabee asked, “What are you going to do?” There was no immediate answer.

Stone had Ron Boivin from the Maine Rural Water Association come down to listen to the water in the system with a data logger, which has microphones that can hear leaks from a long distance, and then records the data. The water company also owns a ground microphone, which is not as sensitive. Stone said he and Boivin did a complete survey of the water lines and didn’t find anything.

Brewer asked “if it would make sense” to go back and check all the meters. He replied, “You could, I suppose, but you’d have to read all of them.” The water company has about 220 customers.

Selectman Chris Betts asked if all the likely big users had been checked. He then asked if there was a way to get in touch with the caretakers of all the houses closed up for the winter to make sure they are checking and Stone said there was.

Stone emphasized, in a telephone conversation, that there wasn’t a “leak,” but that water was “missing,” adding, “the level fluctuates.”

“One of the problems with the water company is that it’s old,” Selectman Evelyn Duncan said. “We’re always reacting instead of being proactive. Some of the stuff is 100 years old. We should be identifying what’s borderline or can be causing a problem and put it on our list to fix or replace.”

Three of the wells, currently off-line, had a problem with trihalomethanes in the summer, and Stone presented some possible solutions at the meeting. Trihalomethanes are caused by an interaction between the water itself and the chlorine used to treat it.

The water in the wells is thought to have been affected by ground water, or the water in Burntland Pond, which the wells are near.

The pond is unusually high right now.

Duncan asked if a different chemical could be used, but Stone explained that chlorine has a residual, which prevents the water from becoming re-contaminated.

Board chairman George Stevens asked about using evaporation to clean the water, but the lack of chlorine would be the same.

Stone presented a plan involving sealing the top 100 feet of the wells to prevent infiltration. The cost of the seals is $3,500 each. Larrabee said they should do just one well, and see if it worked, rather than spending $10,500 on something that might not cure the problem.

If the water level in the standpipe continues to go down, those wells will be needed to keep the level up.

Brewer said, “if we can’t do it maybe we ought to think about putting the water company on the market and letting someone else do it.” No one took her up on that.

A delegation from the Harbor Committee came to the meeting at the selectmen’s suggestion, and Duncan, who is a bookkeeper, went over their budget with them. Her major concern is that their costs will, at least this year, overrun their income. Part of the reason is that the current harbormaster, Steve Johnson, plans to retire, and in order to give the new harbormaster a chance to work into the job, there will be a short time when both of them are employed. That means two sets of wages, two sets of insurance, etc.

Further complicating the matter is that the harbormaster’s job is enough for two in the summer, and the thought is that perhaps a part-time person could be hired in the summer, bringing the number of employees to one and a half.

Hilton Turner said that if the problem is for just one year, “we could use the reserve.”

Larrabee pointed to Duncan and said to Turner, “she’s not going to let you.”

Turner said perhaps it is time to raise the fees on the pier, which haven’t been changed since it was built. He opposed raising the cost of fuel on the pier.

The Harbor Committee will meet on February 12 at 7 p.m. and will discuss the budget at that meeting.

More pressing is the need to define what qualifications they want in the next harbormaster, so Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris can advertise the position.

Duncan pointed out that the auditors are going to “come down” on the selectmen about the bookkeeping on the pier being done by someone who is not bonded.

Among the questions facing the Harbor Committee is whether the new harbormaster should be able to make arrests, as Johnson can, how comfortable does he have to be using a computer, how willing will he be to work on Saturdays or Sundays if needed.

Johnson said that when he’s called out at 3 a.m. sometimes it’s the Coast Guard calling him because he’s closer.

Billings-Pezaris didn’t have much for the selectmen this week. The warrant isn’t ready to be signed. She said she thought there would have to be an article on the warrant authorizing the town to accept the Moose Island Causeway again. The town had already accepted it, and was therefore able to get grant money to rebuild it last year, but now it is a wider road than the 10 foot road described, and will have to be accepted again.

The selectmen set the time for the Town Meeting at 3 p.m. on Monday, March 4.