As dozens of Massachusetts communities try to reach state conservation benchmarks by imposing restrictions on when residents can use sprinklers and irrigation systems to water their lawns, one private water company has taken it a step further by declaring an outright watering-by-sprinkler ban until further notice for its customers in Hingham, Hull, and part of Cohasset.
Aquarion Water Co. leaders say scorching summer temperatures, coupled with a 12 percent increase in demand over last June, prompted the rare ban.
“The weather in June was drier than in previous years, so the demand on our system was higher,” said John Walsh, Aquarion’s vice president of operations. “It exceeded the capacity of the pumping systems that pump water from our reservoir and nine wells to our water treatment plant.”
Though many communities implement restrictions on when their residents can use sprinklers and irrigation to water lawns, state officials say that all-encompassing prohibitions are unusual in Massachusetts.
“A total ban is far less frequent — I’d say we only see one or two a summer,” said Duane LeVangie, program chief of the water management program at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
LeVangie said Aquarion leaders discussed their dilemma with the state last month, and brainstormed ideas to solve the issue.
“They were having a hard time filling up tanks for their system, so they asked for DEP guidance,” he said. “We said if they’re having a hard time, they have to do something about it. They came up with the ban and we agreed it was an appropriate approach.”
Under the Aquarion ban, customers are still allowed to water using hand-held hoses.
Walsh said the company is monitoring pumping levels every day, but was unsure when it would lift the ban. Meanwhile, workers are patrolling the three communities to enforce the moratorium. Walsh said the company has sent out 250 written warnings to residents, and customers found not complying a second time will have water shut off to their property and home, incurring up to nearly $300 in fees to turn it back on.
“We prefer not to do that,” Walsh said. “We need everyone’s help to conserve water.”
State Representative Garrett Bradley, who represents Hull, Cohasset, and part of Hingham, said Aquarion leaders have been called in to speak to the Hingham Board of Selectmen on July 22 about the ban.
A Hingham resident himself, Bradley said many of his constituents have told him they are frustrated with the privately held water company.
“With what we’re paying for water in Hingham and Hull, we expect a certain level of service, but they didn’t plan for this or get the word out quick enough,” Bradley said. “Going to this complete ban this early in the season is very concerning for folks, myself included.”
The ban comes as the embattled water supplier faces off with Hingham officials in court over what the company is worth as the town pursues possibly buying the local water distribution system. Under the state’s 1879 charter of the water system that is now owned by Aquarion, Hingham has the right to buy the system at any time, with the price based on a formula.
Aquarion ‘came up with the ban and we agreed.’
The two sides are far apart on the formula’s results. An independent appraisal firm hired by Hingham recently submitted a report to the court that values the company at about $58.6 million, while Aquarion’s 2012 assessment reached $184.5 million.
Hingham officials have said they want to buy the infrastructure and provide water to residents of the three communities, in response to steep rate increases and complaints against Aquarion over service. But company representatives have disputed those claims, saying they have kept rate hikes below state average and are responsible for paying off a $36 million capital improvement bill from a preceding owner.
The watering ban has not helped the strained relations between the company and the town.
“If there were more money put into the repair and upkeep of the system, there would be much less unaccounted for water and less of a need for the imposition of watering bans, particularly this early in the year,” said Jonathan Asher, chairman of Hingham’s Water Company Acquisition Study Committee.
Asher, like many residents with irrigation systems or sprinklers, said his own garden has suffered with the onset of the ban, now going on its third week.
“Some of my plants are probably not as happy as they otherwise could be,” he said. “I can’t say I’m happy about it, but I do understand the logic, and we’re all in this together. But I think there could be better solutions.”
Walsh said this is the first year in recent memory that Aquarion has instituted such a ban.
“We have taken innovative steps to get more water from some of our wells,” he said, noting that the company is “double pumping” some wells to funnel more water into the treatment plant.
Watering bans in the south suburbs are rare but not unheard of. Walpole announced two similar moratoriums in recent memory, with the most recent one about eight years ago, said Rick Mattson, Walpole’s superintendent of sewer and water.
“It was an extremely dry year, the driest year in record in many years,” Mattson said. “We needed to protect our ground-water levels, which were being depleted very rapidly with no recharge. After we put on the total outdoor watering ban, the water was brought to a point where it was manageable.”
Meanwhile, dozens of communities around the state, including Foxborough, Hanover, Mansfield, Marion, Scituate, and Sharon, have implemented mandatory watering restrictions, dictating when residents can water their lawns. Most are based on assigning certain days to addresses that end in even numbers, and other days to those ending with odd numbers.
Some communities implement them to reach state conservation goals of 65 gallons per person per day. Others, like Easton, are required by the state as part of their Water Management Act permit, said Jack Marsh, Easton’s water operations manager.
“We were down to 64 gallons per person per day last summer, which is very good,” he said, noting that the town has teetered on the edge of 65 gallons this summer. “Things are very dry right now, even with the rain a week ago.”
Some communities take a softer approach. The Dedham-Westwood Water District has a voluntary restriction in place, which mainly seeks to raise awareness on conserving through backing off on the sprinklers.
“We do it to begin to set an awareness level,” said Eileen Commane, the water district’s executive director. “We want people to be thinking about it.”Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.