East Northfield Water Company faces major losses, rate hikes

  • Grandin Reservoir, the water source for the East Northfield Water Company, fell just below legal water quality standards last summer. The company may now be required to install an expensive filtration system. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2019 7:08:24 PM

NORTHFIELD — Even though life is returning to East Northfield through the arrival of Thomas Aquinas College and the Moody Center, it won’t be a cure-all for the East Northfield Water Company’s financial woes, company President John Alden warns.

The water company has been operating at a loss ever since Northfield Mount Hermon School, its largest customer, left Northfield and consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005, Alden said. But even with Thomas Aquinas opening for business this fall and the Moody Center hoping to make itself a destination for conferences, it won’t be enough to support the water company.

The college only plans to grow to about 150 students over the next three years, and its plans beyond there are not fully formed. Meanwhile, the Moody Center only occupies five of the campus buildings.

“It does not come anywhere close to replacing 650 students and a couple hundred other individuals in terms of faculty and staff (of Northfield Mount Hermon),” Alden explained. “We’re not going to be back to where we were.”

Now the company is warning its 300-odd customers to expect a 150-percent rate hike over the next two years, with even more increases likely coming later.

Since the current rates went into effect in 2012, the water company has lost nearly $900,000, Alden said. The 150-percent increase is intended to adjust for that loss, and will be spread over two years as a 73.6-percent increase, effective April 2020; followed by a compounded 42.4-percent increase, effective April 2021. The increases are pending approval by the state Department of Public Utilities.

“We’re embarrassed by the size of the request, but we cannot deal otherwise,” Alden said.

On top of that, the company could soon be facing a large capital expense. Grandin Reservoir, the company’s water source, fell just below state water quality standards last summer. Bacteria levels were found to be above the acceptable limit in eight of 52 bi-weekly tests in the six-month testing period of April to September 2018. Under the Department of Environmental Protection’s rules, a water source may fail no more than five of those tests in any six-month period.

Because of the failed test, the company may be required to install a filtration system. In a meeting with the Northfield Selectboard on Monday, Alden mentioned that it would cost “millions of dollars.” Whatever the cost turns out to be, it will be in addition to the 150 percent increases.

The filtration requirement is not set in stone yet. In January, at the water company’s request, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held a hearing on the situation, where Alden provided information suggesting that the bacteria problems may have been caused by the extreme heat waves last summer. The DEP was still reviewing the information and had not come to a decision as of May 21.

Until there is new word from the DEP, Alden said the water company must proceed as if it will have to purchase a new filtration system.

Alden said he has contacted state lawmakers, hoping to find a way to avoid pushing the cost of the filtration system onto its customers. The East Northfield Water Company’s problems, Alden told the Selectboard, are economically similar to what other small-town utility companies in Massachusetts are dealing with: declining populations and advancing state regulations. So some kind of legislative intervention may not be out of the question, he said.

“Long-term, a water company for 300 individuals is not sustainable,” Alden said. “The longer we fool ourselves on that, the bigger the surprise is going to be when we have to pay the bill.”

A public forum on the East Northfield Water Company’s situation is tentatively planned for late June or early July.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ex 261.


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