LETTER TO THE EDITOR - November 22, 2004

By Andy Hogeland

Williamstown

 

To the Editor:

 

I went back and forth before the first Town Meeting over the merits of the proposed water main on Cold Spring Road. Although I was troubled by the lack of study of its long term development impacts and overloading of the sewer (which starts as a 2.5-inch diameter pipe and gradually increases to 6 inches), by the lack of alternatives presented, and by the violations of the recent Master Plan principles, I often thought these concerns might be outweighed by what sounded like pressing needs at the school.

 

As I looked into what the school would do without the water main, however, I discovered that the arguments about the school's situation (as well as the costs it quoted for each option) had been quite overstated. Based upon what I have learned, I have concluded that the school's situation is not as dire as the water line proponents have advertised and can be addressed in ways that do not justify the major infrastructure changes and development pressures that would be brought about by a 16-inch water main.

 

Mt. Greylock's Options  It has now become clear that there are several feasible options worth exploring to address the drinking water needs of the school.  For each of these options, the school should aggressively seek coverage of the full costs from the state "pothole" fund, as it did when it planned to tie into the water main.

 

Bottled Water  For the near term, the school is already addresing the issue through the effective solution of providing bottled water from Sand Springs at a cost of about $6,500 per year, which is a fraction of the school's initial estimates of $25,000. The school has water which is probably better quality than that supplied by the Town.  Aside from the $6,500 annual cost, the other burdens described by the school consist of additional custodial effort to manage the bottles, and fewer offerings of soup or pasta. These costs and burdens are easily addressed without the need for a 16-inch water main. 

 

Filtration  A second option would be to filter the water from the existing wells. Filtration is a feasible option, and proven technology can achieve the 1 ppb standard. Vendors of filtration  systems have informally estimated that the equipment may cost $15-30,000 per system, though at the first Town Meeting the school only used the highest estimate of $30,000 and then doubled by assuming a filtration system would be required for each of the two existing wells. 

 

At Town Meeting, the school also quoted an annual maintenance figure of $72,000 for the two systems, but  has now provided a range starting at about 1/3 that amount.  Part of the analysis of the filtration option should address the feasibility of purchasing only one filtration system and connecting both wells to that system or, alternatively, drawing all drinking water from one well.  This would significantly reduce annual maintenance costs.  Vendors are prepared to prepare better estimates  for these cost figures and system details, but as of last week the school had not providede them with the necessary  data and samples.  While the school has now promised to do this, no results have been made available.

 

Wells  Another set of options is to look more closely at the test wells put in by the Clark to see if they would yield enough water to satisfy some of the school's needs, and whether other wells could be installed at a reasonable fee. When the Clark first proposed the Phelps Knoll project last year, it dug three test wells (one onits own parcel and two on high school property). The common misunderstanding seems to be that these wells were dry. That is not the case.

 

The three test wells did not provide sufficient water to meet the needs of all three institutions. However, the adequacy of one or more of these wells to meet just the high school's needs of 30 gallons per minute (gpm), has not been examined closely.  The preliminary field test on one of the wells yielded 35 gpm. The field test showed that the 35 gpm rate dropped off, and Guntlow Associates indicated it is unclear whether the well could sustain a rate of 15 gpm.  However, no formal pump test has been done on this well.  If these test wells turn out not to be sufficient, then other locations should be evaluated.

 

Other Private Sources Local water sources in the area, such as Cricket Creek, Northern Berkshire and Waubeeka Springs, have been offered to the school, but have run into problems based on the lack of agreement between the relevant private parties. I urge all of these parties to reconsider their positions - including through the vehicle of establishing a water district to meet the interests of all parties not to be 'in the water business.' Each of these options would solve the school's water needs without imposing the water main.

 

Sprinklers  Contrary to the perchlorate issue, where we should be examining our options, the sprinkler issue needs to be explained for the makeweight that it is.  The building neither has nor needs sprinklers, and the water main would not change that.  The sprinkler issue would only arise if, at some point in the future, the school undertakes a major building project to significantly overhaul the facility, or constructs an entirely new building. At that time, it would have to install sprinklers, although perhaps only in the new areas.  Most importantly, there are no plans to build a new school at that site or to undertake a major renovation as might trigger the need for sprinklers.

 

Assuming we get to the point of a new building, we need to examine the school's claims of a costs of $750,000 to $1,000,000 for a new water tank to support a sprinkler system. There is no basis for the $1,000,000 estimate - it is the presumed inflation of the $750,000 estimate, which is based on the cost of one system installed at Berkshire Hills, and it is unclear how that system compares to what Mt. Greylock would need.

 

The cost claims also fail to explain that such a project would never be done without significant state funding, now under a moratorium, which has been over 60% for recent local projects. The remaining costs would be divided proportionately between Williamstown and Lanesboro. Even if state aid rates go down to 50% when the moratorium is lifted, this means that Williamstown would pay only 33% of the total cost, and that would be a very small percent of a multi-year bond for a new school. Therefore, the proponents' claims for sprinkler costs for Williamstown are significantly overstated and, again, are speculative and many years away.  As has been the case for over 40 years, with or without sprinklers (which are designed to protect property, not people), in the event of a fire all students would exit the building through its many exterior doors.

 

The needs of the school have been used to motivate voters to support the water main and to overcome legitimate concerns over the development pressures it would bring.  An analysis of the school's real needs and options shows that  there is no rush and no emergency.  The school can engage in a more careful analysis - with assistance from local experts - over the coming months before it finally decides on the best solution. 

 

Andy Hogeland

Williamstown