Last week, after three months of lower-than-normal rainfall, the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs officially moved the state’s Northeast region to a Level 2 (“significant”) drought designation.
“Our town’s water supply seems fine, but we are much better off if we are prepared,” said Manchester Select Board chair Becky Jaques, encouraging residents to nevertheless be aware of their water use.
The state’s drought task force and rating system tracks many factors, not just water supply. Dept. of Public Works Director Chuck Dam, whose office oversees daily monitoring and management of Manchester’s two public water sources—Gravelly Pond and the Lincoln Street well—agreed. He said the dry season has had “some effects” on the Lincoln Street Well, “but nothing abnormal, with static and pumping levels running roughly three feet lower than this time last year.” And, in June, Gravelly Pond’s levels dropped just under a foot since the beginning of that month, going from 29.94 ft. to 28.98 ft.
“This puts us at roughly the same height in the pond on this day last year, which was just before the seemingly endless rain we saw last summer,” said Dam.
Coincidentally, the new Manchester Water Resource Protection Task Force (MWRPTF) recently shared preliminary figures from a database of 10 years of town water consumption data for the 2,472 residential, 82 commercial and 64 public/non-profit water meters in town.
The task force is just beginning its 18-month charge to research and make recommendations to the Select Board to safeguard municipal water supplies. The group’s chairman, Steve Gang (who is also chair of the Conservation Commission), said the database is comprehensive, and his group is just diving into it.
One initial statistic? 16 percent of households and businesses are responsible for 50 percent of the town’s annual water use. And most of that water is used between May and September.
Gang said, “it’s a highly skewed distribution.”
That’s true. There aren’t many commercial or public water accounts in Manchester, but the large ones are among the Top 20 water users. For instance, the Essex County Club, a private golf and tennis club, is the town’s top water user, and, with an 18-hole golf course that’s likely not a surprise. What is surprising is there are three Manchester private homes that each use more water per year than the 3,000-member Manchester Athletic Club, the town’s #5 water user. Moreover, six residences use more water annually than the Manchester Essex Regional High School (#10 biggest user).
Like most municipalities, Manchester charges for water use by tiers. The lowest rate at $8.36 per hundred cubic feet of water (roughly 750 gallons) for the first 900 cubic feet used. The highest is $8.96 for those households that use more than 39,000-cf per year.
The Select Board reviews rates annually and, when there is an increase, it’s done evenly across all tiers.
One area of focus for the task force is finding ways to conserve water that are smart, and promise true impact for the future. That means the group will look at is whether to use the proverbial carrot (incentives for “good behavior”) or the stick (by hockey sticking the rates for the highest volume users). Or, perhaps a combination of both.
One problem with the current cost-based water system is it doesn’t appear to inspire environmentally progressive behavior among high volume users.
Tom Kehoe, the former Select Board member who currently serves on the WRPTF, recalled a lengthly 2016 drought when the Select Board instituted water restrictions, and many of Manchester’s large volume users simply refused to comply.
He said the response was discouraging.
“They were basically saying, ‘As long as I can pay for the water, I’m going to use it,’ which was a little bit irritating,” said Kehoe. “You know, maybe they’d at least cut back on some of their irrigation. But that didn’t happen.”
The task force has another year to finish crunching the data, researching strategies of communities that are trying to tackle the challenge of high-volume water use while preserving water and sewer infrastructures, and making formal recommendations to the Select Board for implementation.
The biggest challenge is how to address demand in an effective way. This is somewhat complicated, considering that under the town’s tiered pricing, high users at the high tier essentially subsidize rates at the lower tier.
“Demand can be managed by raising the water rates to keep the use down or by instituting conservation rates,” said Kehoe. “More research is necessary to investigate how conservation rates can be instituted and how they work.”
Commercial customers like the Essex County Club, which has a state-of-the-art recapture irrigation system, watch and manage water usage closely. For residential users, at least in the short and medium term, the Water Task Force is hoping things like a “Level 2” drought designation will prompt awareness, and a change in behavior across all tiers.
The group recommends not watering outdoors in the hot sun and wind when less water will reach plants, or watering “deeply” (once per week, as opposed to daily), or even allowing some lawns to go dormant in summer drought conditions since they will not die but will return to green in the early fall. Other ideas? Fixing all leaks inside and out of the home, running full dishwashers and washing machines instead of water-wasting smaller loads, shutting off sink faucets run while cleaning other parts of the kitchen or brushing teeth, and simply taking shorter showers.
Alison Anholt-White, chair of the Manchester Sustainability Committee, said rain barrels to collect runoff can make a huge difference in mitigating water use. (“The more you can get people using rain barrels the better,” agreed DPW Town Engineer Nate Desrosiers.) So can the simple, old-fashioned strategy of laying a hose with hole pricks, and place it on a timer. That, Anholt-White said, can water a garden with pints instead of gallons of water. The big opportunity for large volume users lies in so-called “grey water” systems, which use the leftover, untreated water generated from clothes washers, bathtubs and bathroom sinks. This water source is a common way to recycle water in Europe, said Anholt-White, a native of the UK.
In fact, possible use of grey water for irrigation systems is considered a big opportunity.
“If we’re talking about conservation, and the question is, ‘Do you need to use purified drinking water on your lawn, your gardens, your car, your swimming pool?’” asked Steve Gang. “I’m pretty convinced that you do not.”
In the end, the Water Task Force believes it can move the needle on water consumption. After all, said Gang, after looking at 10 years of usage data, one thing is clear. “Almost everybody in the top 200,” he said “stays in the top 200.”