Averting a water crisis
After months of sounding the alarm, the Block Island Water Company, under the supervision of John Breunig has finally gotten the attention of the Town Council.
At a joint meeting of the Council and the joint boards of the water and sewer departments on Monday, November 14, Breunig walked council members Sven Risom, Keith Stover, and Martha Ball through the problems and the possible short- and long-term solutions to meeting the island’s summertime water needs. Outgoing First Warden André Boudreau and Councilor Mark Emmanuelle did not attend the meeting.
Breunig has been questioning the methodology used to calculate the needs of customers in the Water District. Traditionally, usage is measured during the third quarter of the calendar year, which goes from July 1 through September 30. But, the inclusion of September distorts the calculation with its lower flows lessening the real impact of demand during July and August.
“We all know the day after Labor Day is very different out here,” said Breunig.
Breunig credited Block Island Power Company President Jeffery Wright for making him rethink how seasonal demand should dictate rate and decision making. When Breunig did his own recalculations
he found that the water company was up against the limits of what it could reliably produce and store during July and August. So starting almost a year ago, the water company began to deny new water allocations for large commercial users and instead put them on a waiting list, unless the request was for fire suppression purposes only.
As a consequence, certain building projects have been put on hold, such as the planned addition to the Manisses Hotel, although owner Blake Filippi attended the meeting with an appeal of the water department’s wait-listing its application. And, just in the past month, plans for a major renovation to the “Surfside” across from the Red Bird have been withdrawn.
Compounding the problem is that some customers who have allocations are not using the amount they could be using, and will, once their current renovations or construction is complete. Two examples are Finn’s Restaurant, which was closed this past summer and most of the summer of 2021, and the new building behind the Gables.
Breunig’s proposed way of calculating the needs of the water district are to measure the flows used during the highest consecutive four days of water usage during the summer.
Town Council members were surprised to learn that those four peak days were not clustered around the Fourth of July, but rather, were in August.
In a memo prepared for the meeting by Breunig and town engineer, Jim Geremia, there are a few long- and short-term proposals. Currently the water plant uses the equivalent of two-and-a-half reverse
osmosis units, which could be increased to three. Additionally, the way capacity is calculated could change to allow for using 95 percent capacity as opposed to the 80 percent currently used. If those things
occur, an additional 2619 gallons could be eked out for new allocations. Of those, 25 percent would be set aside for public projects, and 75 percent for private, single-family homes. Geremia said that if they were talking about a sewer facility, as opposed to water, going to 95 percent capacity would not be allowed. “If you’re at 85 percent [sewage capacity] for 90 days, you have to go to design.”
Per the memo, on those four peak days, the average flow was 152,898 gallons per day. There are an additional 22,134 gallons per day set aside for “fire commitments.”
There are also six “standby” customers that are mainly comprised of most of the largest hotels – the Harborside, the National, and the Spring House. These are all on wells, but as standby customers, they could switch to town water if necessary because of some type of failure. That did happen with the National this year, but thankfully, it was after Labor Day.
Per the memo, it is proposed “to eliminate all standby commitments from the calculation. This action would result in the water district not providing emergency standby services to the six customers. This step is necessary to allow for additional allocation purchases and increased demand. The Commission could offer standby services for the off-peak demand season at a lower cost.”
Breunig recommended that the National maybe purchase a replacement well pump to have on hand.
In terms of priorities in the short-term, Breunig recommends “that only allocations be granted for new customers and for public safety (i.e. fire suppression systems), existing single-family dwellings with private wells, and new single-family dwellings.” During the meeting, he mentioned that there were a surprising number of single-family homes in the district that were still on wells.
Later, during the regular sewer and water meeting, allocations were granted to the Surfside for fire suppression, a single-family home, and the Thomas property, which is owned by the town and being renovated to allow for more town employee housing. Breunig also told the group that he would like to accommodate affordable housing, and a project across from Ball O’Brien Park is currently in the works. One advantage of affordable housing is it means additional revenues for the water company throughout the year instead of just during the peak, summer season.
Long-term projects are more costly, and the water company is requesting that a bond authorization for $4.8 million be included in the upcoming budget. This will allow the company to add a third storage tank or to increase the size of the existing tanks, add a third reverse osmosis unit to treat the water, and to develop the Schmidt property with new wells.
The Schmidt property was purchased by the state for the use of the water company earlier this year. Even with that purchase, space is tight. Both Geremia and Breunig stressed that there really is little room to expand, especially because of the terrain and the acreage specifications for public water supplies.
“These proposals right now are what we need to get on a roll,” said Water Commission Chair Brad Marthens.