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Water Commission helps explain why rates are so high

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW The rain that fell from the sky last week provided a constant reminder to the town of Longmeadow about its water issues. On a particularly wet Monday night, the Select Board met with the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission to discuss their common problems.

Joseph Superneau, executive director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission (SWSC) and Robert Stoops, chief engineer, provided a presentation on water system capital improvements and initiated a water source and use discussion.

Superneau explained that the SWSC has been independent of the city of Springfield since 1996 and gave a brief history of the area's water supply, which began with the Springfield Aqueduct Company in 1848. In 1875, the Ludlow Reservoir was developed; in 1910, the Borden Brook Reservoir was constructed; and in 1931 the Cobble Mountain Reservoir was constructed.

Since the beginning, capital improvement has been taking place on dams, reservoirs, watersheds and water treatment, transmission and storage.

"In 2002, we began $70 million worth of capital improvement projects," Superneau stated. These projects included replacing the old Cobble Dam diversion outlet control valves and gate, repairing the surge tank, various West Parish water treatment plant projects and Provin Mountain storage tank maintenance and rehabilitation.

"It's going to cost $4.5 million to fix the water main on Orchard Street in Springfield," Stoops said. "That work in ongoing."

The fees charged by the SWSC go toward paying for all these necessary improvements. Those monies also pay for a registration fee to the Department of Environmental Protection every 10 years that allows the commission to withdraw water from the reservoirs.

Stoops explained how the SWSC arrives at the amounts they charge for water. "We take the total cost of water production, treatment and transmission, divide it by the number of gallons produced at the West Parish water treatment plant, which leads to a cost per unit, multiplied by so many millions of gallons. The capital improvements are driving the cost of the water higher."

The town of Longmeadow, which provides 96 miles of water distribution, used 100 gallons per person per day in 2006. Springfield residents used only 69. The State Water Management Act target is for residents to use 80 or less gallons per day by 2009; 65 or less by 2017.

Select Board Chair Hal Haberman noted on the Longmeadow Water Billing Summary chart that estimated costs from the SWSC for the town's water have increased 40 percent since 2004.

"We had to play catch up because we haven't raised the rates in our town," Haberman added.

Those costs may increase again next year, as Superneau explained that a total estimate of more then $88 million has been reached for capital improvement projects through 2009. "If lines go down or collapse, we can't bring you water," he said. "Our objective is to maintain the system.

"You're not alone in the boat," Superneau said. "There's been a huge time period with deferred maintenance. We are a company and we need to raise cash." He continued that some projects are paid for with cash, others are paid through bonding.

"We're looking to go in the right direction," Haberman said. The Select Board chair told Reminder Publications that the real purpose of the SWSC's presentation was to inform both the board and the town's residents.

"We knew where the money was going," he said. "We wanted the public to see it as well."

He said the presentation was significant because it showed the funds Springfield was using, how 28 percent of the water going into Longmeadow was unaccounted for and how much larger water consumption is in the town versus its surrounding communities.

"This issue is still adversely affecting our pocketbooks," he stated. "[The presentation] helped explain why the rates are so high, but it won't lessen the burden."

Haberman continued, "Rates will continue to rise as long as Springfield keeps doing what it's doing and we do what we need to do."

Town Manager Robin Crosbie said the two purposes of the meeting were to start a conversation between the SWSC and the Select Board, who also serve as the town's water and sewer commission, and to let people know about the changes in the state's water policy.

"The first issue with all of this is that the public needs to be informed," Crosbie said. The series of public meetings taking place are designed to inform and gather input from Longmeadow residents, she added.

"We all know what needs to be done," Vice Chair Kathleen Grady stated at the meeting. "The question is, how do we finance it?" She suggested the group that recently sorted out the "very knotty issue" of town pensions be asked for their advice on the water and sewer rate problems.

Board member William Scibelli said he didn't want this task force to become a scapegoat for future decisions.

"We have a big learning curve here," Crosbie said. "Any structure you put in would not have made everybody happy, especially trying to catch up on a 30 percent increase."

The Select Board also announced at the meeting that a Special Town Meeting will be taking place March 4 regarding sewer rebates for those who are eligible for them.