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Exploring A Water System From Mountain Reservoir To Bathroom Tap

In this segment from WAMC’s in depth look at infrastructure series, WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports on how the largest municipality in western Massachusetts gets its water.

As you turn on the bathroom faucet in the morning to brush your teeth probably that last thing you think about is where did the water come from and how did it get to me?

" We like to say it is a miracle when you turn your tap on everyday and you get a clean glass of water and you don't have to think about it," said  Josh Schimmel, executive director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission.

What he likes to call “a miracle” is actually an engineering marvel.  It is a supply and distribution system – parts of which were constructed in the 1800’s – that brings water to a quarter million people in greater Springfield.  It requires tens of millions of dollars annually to maintain – an expense borne primarily by the water consumers.

Up in a mountain about 35 miles west of Springfield is the source of drinking water for roughly 30 percent of the state.  The Cobble Mountain Reservoir located in Blandford and Granville was built in 1931. At the time, it was the largest earthen dam in the world.

" Over a hundred years ago, people had the foresight to build really robust systems that are still in service today, said Schimmel.

The nearly 23 billion gallon reservoir is fed by numerous streams and mountain brooks. It is surrounded by 31,000 acres of undeveloped land where public access is forbidden.

From the reservoir, gravity takes the water to a treatment plant in Westfield that was built in the 1970s.  After being filtered through sand, adjusted for pH, and disinfected with chlorine, the water flows five miles, again by gravity, to four underground storage tanks with a total capacity of 60 million gallons.

Three 54-and 48-inch diameter transmission pipelines carry the water another six miles, crossing the Connecticut River to Springfield.  A network of underground pipes distribute the water to homes and businesses in Springfield, Agawam, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Ludlow.

"From the farthest reaches of the water supply to residents in Ludlow it is about 50 miles as the crow flies and there is about 600 miles of water pipe between here and there," said Schimmel.

Combined with the sewer lines the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission maintains there is 1,000 miles of pipe.  Forty-four percent of it is more than 75 years old.  25 percent is more than 100 years old.

" What industry relies on technology that is 100 years," asked Schimmel?  " It is really only the water and sewer industry that still has stuff in the ground  that provides service everyday that is more than 100 years old."

To try to stay ahead of potentially disruptive breakdowns, Schimmel said the commission has an “aggressive” infrastructure replacement program with projected annual spending of $40 million over the next few years.

" As I've said before, 'it's not if there is going to be a water main (break) that disrupts service  to the communities we serve it is just a matter of when'," said Schimmel.  " We try to do the best we can to prioritize areas for infrastructure investment. And all of that from investigation to construction is supported by our rate structure.  There  isn't money coming from any source other than what we collect for water use and wastewater ( service)."

The commission said the typical annual household combined bill for water and sewer is $991. That is among the lowest of municipal water and sewer systems in Massachusetts.

Rates were increased 4 percent this year, which is the average rate increase nationally according to Circle of Blue, an organization of journalists and scientists that collects data on natural resources.

Eighteen percent of the 35-45 million gallons of water produced daily from the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission’s system is used by one customer – the Eastman Chemical Co. plant in the Indian Orchard neighborhood.

The plant’s environmental supervisor, Chris Aberg, could not say how much the bill comes to for all that water, but he stressed the need to maintain a reliable supply of water to the plant which has 400 employees and produces the shatter-proof glass used in car windshields.

" It is vitally important for our local officials and state and federal representatives to consider that it is a cost we all endure and so it is important for them to consider investment," said Aberg.

In the 1970s, after the passage of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act by Congress, the federal government spent heavily to support improvements and expansions of local water systems.

But federal spending for water and sewer infrastructure projects peaked in 1977 and now accounts for just 9 percent of capital spending by Washington, according to a report from the Value of Water Campaign, a coalition of water and sewer plant operators.

Schimmel said government spending on infrastructure over the last several decades has tilted sharply toward transportation with little federal and state funding available now for water and sewer projects.

"What we get are low interest loans, which help, but grants would be better," said Schimmel. "Nationally there is a lack of investment in the water sector."

A report earlier this year from the office of Massachusetts Auditor Suzanne Bump said the state faces a need for $7.2 billion in water infrastructure projects.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the city’s water system is a big selling point when trying to attract new businesses and residents.

"We  have one of the best water systems in the world," declared Sarno. " When you look at what happened in Flint, Michigan where corners were cut to balance a budget, I give you my word that as long as I am around that  will never  happen in the city of Springfield."

A reliable source of water is also vital to public safety. The Springfield Water and Sewer Commission’s water distribution system includes 6,000 fire hydrants.  The age and condition of those hydrants is a worry according to Springfield Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant.

"We have experienced fires in the past where the aging  infrastructure failed and resulted in costly delays in getting water on the fire," said  Conant.  He cited a fire that occurred on Chase Ave on July 3, 2013 where a water main failed resulting in the loss of two houses, damage to four more and the loss of several vehicles.

The reason for constructing the Cobble Mountain Reservoir, in the first place, was a need for fire protection in Springfield because of a building boom that occurred in the 1920s.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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