Should the town permanently abandon and cap the wells that used to draw water from the Ipswich River Basin before Reading joined the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) for its water and razed its water treatment plant?
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is “interested in making permanent the inability of Reading to withdraw water from our former well fields in the future and, therefore, to maintain, at the very least, the current health of the river,” according to a memo from Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner to the Board of Selectmen.
Beyond the wells, the town would have to permanently relinquish its right to draw water from the river basin.
Two members of the state agency spoke with the selectmen last week.
“The potential use of the wells is,” Hechenbleikner wrote in a memo to the Board of Selectmen, “very remote.” That’s because the MWRA is operationally strong, he wrote, in responding to emergency issues. “The likelihood of Reading taking water out of the Ipswich,” he said, is zero.”
If the town ever had to use the wells in an emergency, the water quality would be poor, according to the town manager – maybe even undrinkable. With the former water treatment plant now a field, the town would need approval – and a significant amount of money – to build a new one. The cost: $20 to $30 million, according to Deputy Regional Director of the Northeast Regional Office of MassDEP Eric Worrall. Going to the MWRA for its water is less expensive than building a new water treatment plant, Hechenbleikner said.
The town has kept the wells because the state environmental agency required them as an emergency water supply.
“That means that the pump station had to be modified at significant cost and the wells had to all be kept operable,” according to Hechenbleikner. The town has not spent “a lot of money” to keep the wells operable.
Over the life of the town’s Capital Improvement Plan, “we will spend significant funds to recondition the wells at an estimated cost of $75,000” for each of nine wells, according to Hechenbleikner.
“It drives me crazy” to spend money on “a system with no value,” he said.
The Ipswich River is much healthier since Reading stopped withdrawing its public water supply, the town manager said. But “it is still an endangered river.”
Hechenbleikner suggested that the town abandon the six wells with the least favorable water quality immediately, and the three with the most favorable water quality when the MWRA’s back-up water supply is connected and operating, in two to three years.
The selectmen took no action on the issue. They were concerned, they said, about permanently giving up the right to draw water from the river. Several said they were concerned that other communities will take the water Reading is not drawing from the river. No, said the DEP representatives, and new, stricter water withdrawal regulations are coming, said Beth Card, assistant commissioner of MassDEP’s Bureau of Resource Protection.
If the wells are abandoned and the town takes no more water from the river, the need for an aquifer protection area ends, commented Worrall.