A river wild: Whately struggles to protect its drinking water

WHATELY — Whately has pulled out the big guns in its ongoing struggle to stabilize the banks of the Mill River before they erode and expose two wells that supply water to nearly half of the town’s residents.

Claiming that it has reached an impasse with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the town’s Board of Selectmen recently sent a letter to state Rep. Stephen Kulik and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Gov. Deval Patrick to spur progress.

The town has been struggling for the past three and a half years to develop a plan to stabilize the river bank and protect its water supply, but officials say the DEP has been obstructive throughout the process, according to the letter.

“Whately really doesn’t have much clout to get things done. We’re hoping the legislators might have a little more clout to make sure the agencies are talking to each other,” said Town Administrator Lynn Sibley. “We’ve tried to work it out without any help from above, but now we’re at wit’s end.”

According to Sibley, Whately has faced issues with its municipal water supply since the 1980s, when pesticide use on local farms contaminated the shallow private wells in the eastern part of town. In response, the town created its water department and built the water system that taps into the wells along the river.

When the wells were installed, Sibley said, the town recognized that there could be problems with erosion and river meandering, and took steps to mitigate the risk by installing sheet piling — long pieces of steel that are driven into the river bank to keep the water away.

In March 2011, a section of the sheeting failed due to unusually high spring flooding and strong river currents and the town performed an emergency repair as a temporary measure.

In 2013, the town hired river restoration specialists, Inter-Fluve of Cambridge, to develop a new design for protecting the wells while reducing environmental impact on the river. Eventually, the firm came up with a plan to rechannel the river and move it away from the wells.

Sibley said contamination of the wells by the river would effectively destroy the town’s water supply, requiring it to rely on neighboring towns or have water trucked in. Sibley said geological surveys performed when the wells were drilled show that there are no other viable locations to drill new ones in town.

Though the project became complicated by endangered species and wetlands in the area, the firm worked with state and federal agencies to get the project permitted, including Mass. Fish and Wildlife, Natural Heritage Endangered Species Division, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Audubon Society and the DEP.

According to the letter, the town is confident that all of the agencies will sign off except for the DEP, which has now asked the town to redesign the plans to combine rechanneling and sheet piling. Sibley said the town has already evaluated three alternative plans to meet the requirements of the agency’s permit and a FEMA Hazardous Mitigation Grant, which would help get the work done.

“The plan we proposed — to move the river back to where it used to be — most of the other agencies agree with as long as proper mitigation steps are taken for the future,” said Sibley. “The DEP is being very difficult.”

Sibley said the other agencies would likely not approve of the redesign, and the engineering costs to develop it could cost the town up to $80,000.

“The DEP really doesn’t seem to understand the urgency, and now they’ve reversed their preferred solution,” said Selectman Jonathan Edwards. “We’re getting more and more nervous every winter, with the spring thaws and the torrential downpours.”

Edwards said that the town has received tentative approval for the FEMA grant, but may not receive the money if the DEP doesn’t approve of the project.

“All we’re saying is, let’s move forward on a solution everyone can agree to,” Edwards said.

Representatives from the DEP’s western regional office declined to comment for this article, but said they have sent a letter to the town regarding the situation.

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