Drought, supply chain woes and toxic chemicals create a ‘perfect storm’ for Mass. water systems

City Water Treatment

Water Treatment

May 30, 2023

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Over the past year, some Massachusetts towns have run out of important chemicals needed to treat municipal water.

Treatment system operator Dean Strom walks between the filtration tanks of the Deaconess Water Treatment Facility in Concord. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Treatment system operator Dean Strom walks between the filtration tanks of the Deaconess Water Treatment Facility in Concord. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Every day, roughly a million gallons of water flow through a big red barn in Concord. This is one of the town’s water treatment facilities. Inside, giant tanks sit in orderly lines, and colorful pipes wind through the space. But these days, there’s something new: pallets stacked with bags of dry chemicals.

“This is unusual,” said Alan Cathcart, director of public works in Concord.

Lately, Cathcart says supply chain holdups mean it can take longer than it used to — sometimes even months — to get deliveries from vendors. So Concord has been stockpiling some powdered chemicals to make sure the town has what it needs to keep the water flowing.

Over the past year, some Massachusetts towns have run out of fluoride, which is added to water to improve dental health. Concord has dipped into its stash to help its neighbors out.

And it’s not just fluoride that has been hard to find. Carthcart and others say water systems are facing pressure from all sides, making it harder — and more expensive — to bring clean water to taps across the state.

This summer has been particularly brutal, they say. It has made many people in the water industry wonder whether it’s time to fundamentally rethink how cities and towns provide this service to residents and businesses.

‍”We are getting to a breaking point” For Savas Danos, a primary worry is chlorine, a critical chemical used to disinfect water, so it is safe to drink.

Danos is the bidding agent for the Northeast/Merrimack Valley Chemical Consortium, which does bulk purchasing for 75 municipal water and wastewater departments.

Earlier this summer, he fielded calls from members who told him, “ ‘If I don’t get chlorine in the next week, [there] would be front page headlines in the paper because I’ll shut off all my water,’ ” Danos recalled. “So it was that tenuous in early July.”

‍”I’ve never seen this level of the perfect storm complications all coming to a head at the same time” – SAVAS DANOS

Supply of chlorine has improved since then, but he says pipes, fire hydrants and other supplies are still hard to come by. Plus, he’s watching an “unprecedented” increase in prices.

“In my 40 years, I’ve never seen this level of the perfect storm complications all coming to a head at the same time,” Danos said.

“I do feel like we are getting to a breaking point,” said Jennifer Pederson, who runs the Massachusetts Water Works Association, which lobbies on behalf of water professionals.

Pederson, Cathcart, Danos and others can tick off a lengthy list of concerns including infrastructure woes, toxic chemicals, drought and workforce challenges. “More than half of our operators in Massachusetts are over the age of 50,” said Pederson. “So a lot of water systems are trying to figure out where their next operators will come from.”

Many of the state’s water systems are aging, too. Most have been around for a century, said Cathcart, and “pipes have a useful life of somewhere between 75 and 125 years, which means all this buried infrastructure has to be replaced.”

Concord’s Director of Public Works Alan Cathcart, standing outside the Deaconess Water Treatment Facility. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On top of that, recent testing showed the presence of toxic chemicals called PFAS in over 100 water systems in the state. In some cases, this is forcing multi-million dollar changes and investments in filtration systems.

And a serious drought this summer has meant both less water to supply, and “a significant increase in demand” from water customers, according to the Northeast/Merrimack Valley Chemical Consortium’s Danos.

Now, experts are looking at how to calm the waves from this storm.

Rethinking the system

Some in the water industry have called for more public money for maintenance, repairs and new infrastructure.

While the federal government’s recent infrastructure law earmarked more than a billion dollars over the next five years for water and wastewater systems in Massachusetts, and the state offers low-interest loans and grants, Pederson says that’s “a fraction” of what’s needed.

Part of the problem is that water systems have long been neglected.

“It’s pretty shocking how little investment we have for this critical infrastructure,” said Loretta Fernandez, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “Humans’ most basic needs are being met by drinking water infrastructure, and yet it just seems to fly under the radar and get underinvested in all the time.”

Another approach that’s been floated is for cities and towns, which traditionally provide their own water, to pool their resources.

“All these pressures are having us evaluate regionalization in a way that we never would have before,” said Cathcart.

Fernandez adds that a regional or statewide approach would help “balance out a lot of the inequalities.” She envisions a model similar to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides water to Boston and 60 nearby municipalities.

This summer’s challenges have also amplified calls to reevaluate the water financing system.

Right now, the more water the public uses, the more revenue a water department gets. Under the state’s Water Management Act, Massachusetts does set some limits on water use, but this also limits the revenue available to water providers.

Pederson says there’s a need to evaluate the environmental benefits of the law and the cost to the public of such caps. “There’s not often a follow up analysis,” she said.

Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, an environmental advocacy group, said developing a new financial model might be necessary. She suggested looking to the electricity industry for ideas.

“In this state and many other Northeast states, electric utilities do not make more money by selling more electricity,” Norton said. “They actually make more money by doing more energy efficiency.”

Norton said a similar model could encourage water systems to support conservation efforts, while ensuring they have enough revenue to maintain safety and supply. However, some in the industry say they worry the fixed costs of providing water could make such a proposal impractical.

Whatever the future looks like, Concord’s Cathcart says, right now the work inside water treatment facilities is getting more difficult.

“It’s extremely more stressful than it has been in the past,” he said.

The pressure, he worries, could become too much for the water system to handle.

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