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Fearing water shortage, Ashland seeks link to MWRA

Lower than normal rainfall has led to lower water levels in Ashland’s wells this year, and prompted town officials to seek an emergency connection to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system to guard against potential shortages this winter and spring.

State environmental officials determined that Ashland residents face a potential water emergency, and the MWRA advisory board on Wednesday voted to support the town’s request for a six-month emergency connection to the regional water system. An MWRA spokeswoman said the agency’s board of directors is expected to approve the request during its Dec. 18 meeting.

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The MWRA provides drinking water from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs to 51 Eastern Massachusetts communities, but Ashland relies on the agency only for sewage disposal, drawing its water from several wells in town.

Town Manager Tony Schiavi said a lack of rain has left water levels low in town. Though there is no guarantee that Ashland will have to tap into the MWRA supply, Schiavi said, getting the emergency connection lined up is a necessary precaution.

The town’s Department of Public Works director, David Manugian, said rainfall was particularly low this fall.

“The well levels are down, and we’re concerned that we may run into a situation midwinter where we can’t provide enough water,” Manugian said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts total rainfall in the area as 10 inches below normal at this time of year, and calls the conditions in Ashland a moderate drought, he said.

The area generally sees 45 inches of rainfall per year, Manugian said.

Ashland has requested access to an average of 200,000 gallons of water per day, with a peak amount of 750,000 gallons, said Manugian. The MWRA water would be provided through a connecting pipe from Southborough.

The six-month emergency supply will cost the town around $5,000 according to Schiavi, and an additional rate depending on the amount of water used.

Ashland faced similar drought conditions in 2007, when the town submitted its first request, and received emergency water from the MWRA.

Water levels this year are similar to those in 2007, said Manugian, which is why the town is seeking the backup.

Because this is Ashland’s second request, the cost will be prorated based on the town’s emergency usage in 2007, according to MWRA spokeswoman Ria Convery.

Although it is not certain that Though there is no guarantee that the town will need the emergency connection, Schiavi said, saidlocal town officials are “trying to get all the pieces in place.”

Manugian said that the likelihood of Ashland needing MWRA water is high enough to warrant setting up the contingency plan .

“We recognize that it’s a process to get a connection, and we wanted to have that prep work done,” he said.

The process includes gaining approval from the MWRA advisory board, which has representatives from all of its member communities.

Convery said the MWRA does not receive emergency requests often, “maybe one every couple of years,” but they are generally approved. The Quabbin Reservoir holds about a six-year supply of water, and recharges very quickly from rainfall, she said.

Manugian said the town has not stood still since 2007 in the face of yet another potential water emergency. Some changes have been made in the water system: The town has switched the type of water pump it uses, making it easier to control the rate at which water is drawn from the wells, which ultimately helps conserve some water.

Schiavi said that the town has made efforts to fix water leaks, imposed water restrictions in the summer, and instituted a ban on outdoor watering last month.

But even with water usage controls, concern remains.

Snowfall can contribute to the long-term water supply, through melting, Manugian said, but it does little for the short-term supply: “If we don’t have the rain, we don’t have as much water as we’d like.”

Manugian said that in 2007 Ashland began looking at having a permanent connection with the MWRA, and searching for additional well sites.

Such long-term plans to manage the town’s water continue. The DPW has identified two likely well sites, and conducted preliminary research and finished a conceptual design for a water connection, said Manugian. But progress was slowed by the recent economic downturn.

Manugian said town officials are hopeful that, with last week’s advisory board vote backing the interim arrangement, progress on a long-term solution will continue.

Rebecca Kagle can be reached at rkagle13@gmail.com.
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