Hingham Journal Letter

To the editor:

In a recent letter to the Journal, a resident expressed concern that the discussion around the water company acquisition has not addressed the competing goals of preservation of the aquifer and potential future commercial growth in the town, particularly in South Hingham. Governance at any level involves the never-ending quest to balance competing goals, and it is no different for Hingham. The resident, Richard Cook, is mistaken in stating that the Town has not been working to balance these two particular goals. The Town has been doing, and continues to do, just that for many years.

First, in the 18 years since the adoption of the Community Preservation Act in Hingham, the residents of the Town have voted over $9 million in taxpayer Community Preservation funds to acquire over 133 acres of land with an identified purpose being the protection of the watershed.

In the same timeframe, the private water company made no acquisitions of land for watershed protection, nor contributed any funds toward such efforts. With these land acquisitions, the town both protected the aquifer and limited development that could stress these sensitive areas.

The town’s action directly contradicts Mr. Cook’s erroneous assertion.

Second, as to South Hingham, the South Hingham Study Group issued a report in November 2017 that set forth findings related to issues affecting development in South Hingham, including water capacity and infrastructure. Mr. Cook and I were both members of the Study Group.

The report was the product of 30 public meetings, three years of work by citizen volunteers (who together represented over 100 years of permitting experience between the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, as well as the Hingham Development and Industrial Commission), the participation of 10 town departments, Aquarion, representatives of three neighborhoods, regional and state agencies, and all three major landowners in the area.

Our inquiry was augmented by two engineering firms and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The Study explored existing conditions in South Hingham, examined the constraints on what may be built in the future and recognized the limits of future development. We considered demographics, employment trends, quality of life, current provisions of the Zoning By-Law, traffic, and all infrastructure constraints, notably water.

In terms of water capacity, we noted that Aquarion (then a subsidiary of the Australian corporate entity named MacQuarie, now owned by Eversource) owned the distribution rights of the water system and held the power over all local water supply decisions.

We noted the constraints imposed by the Massachusetts Water Management Act on water withdrawal limits, which are currently limited to 3.51 million gallons a day. The Study Group accepted the 2013 assessment by Aquarion’s consultant, Tata & Howard, that water use in the Town is bumping up against that limit.

Tata & Howard’s assessment included Aquarion’s significant unaccounted for water percentages that continue to remain far in excess of both DEP standards and the averages of other Massachusetts water systems. The Group noted the state’s expressed concern that Aquarion’s rate of unaccounted for water remains unacceptably high.

The Study Group considered Title 5 wastewater criteria and projected the limits of growth under existing conditions. We examined the Maximum Daily Demand for purposes of assessing the Fire Department’s ability to have the water pressure it needs to confront fire threats and noted that the present system does not “contribute to adequate fire suppression flows at the present time in the study area.”

Four options were examined to assess the necessary water protection for South Hingham. It should be noted that at all of these meetings, Aquarion representatives were present, and no evidence was submitted to rebut these findings.

The Study Group noted that the Weir River watershed is “highly stressed,” the most serious classification level, and Aquarion has known this since 2005. Yet, despite this, Aquarion applied for additional withdrawal permits and requested a waiver to avoid having to file an Environmental Impact Report and requested a “Determination of Insignificance” under the Interbasin Transfer Act. Both requests were denied by the MA Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

The Study Group also examined Aquarion’s water balance program at the time our report was released and recent mitigation measures by Aquarion. Aquarion had yet to articulate a water conservation plan when our report was submitted to the Board of Selectmen.

We also looked at the potential for alternative water sources and the constraints and challenges that accompany five possible considerations. Aquarion’s own consultant, Environmental Partners Group, Inc. (“EPG”), recognized the need for infrastructure upgrades to the South Shore Park and an alternative water source.

In 2016, EPG noted that “despite continuing efforts to reduce the amount of [unaccounted for water], it is reasonable to assume that in order for Aquarion to reliably meet the future needs of the HHC water system, a new source of water will be required.”

In sum, this outline of the extensive work of both the Community Preservation Committee and the Study Group clearly demonstrates that the town is not only aware of the issues raised in Mr. Cook’s letter but has been proactive on both fronts. The town has spent millions of dollars and countless hours of effort over the past 18 years to acquire land in order to protect the watershed. In stark contrast, the private water company has done no such thing.

Concern about the ability of our stressed water supply to meet current and future demand is real, regardless of ownership. In 2003, the Hingham Water Supply Committee issued a report speaking to the value “of a municipal water district to give Hingham more autonomy over its water-related decisions.” I agree.

The issues that plague the water company, outlined in the South Hingham Study Group final report, speak directly to the Town’s need to manage our own most vital resource, water. Don’t look at what Aquarion says, look at what they have done.

Ask yourself, can Hingham do better? I say we can.

Paul Healey

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