Northfield residents seek solutions for rising water rates

  • The Grandin Reservoir provides water to East Northfield, including the Thomas Aquinas College campus. A state-required upgraded filtration system for the water supply could cost anywhere from $3.5 to $5 million. Staff File photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2019 5:08:06 PM

NORTHFIELD — Residents affected by the 150 percent increase in water rates anticipated by the East Northfield Water Company have questions and concerns, and gathered together last week to discuss the problem.

More than 20 Northfield residents met informally at Dickinson Memorial Library, developing questions for the water company. Some wondered if a new filter — which is estimated to cost between $3.5 and $5 million — was truly necessary for the water supply, following a string of more recent tests showing above-acceptable levels of bacteria.

The 150 percent rate increase was proposed to cover the $900,000 in losses the company has incurred since rates were last set in 2012. Customers will see a 73.6 percent increase, effective April 2020; followed by a compounded 42.4 percent increase, effective April 2021.

Preparing for Sept. 18

Last week’s meeting was, in part, preparing for a public hearing with the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) on Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. at Northfield Town Hall. The water rate increases are pending approval from the DPU, which suspended the effective date of the proposed rate increases until April 1, 2020 while it investigates the propriety of the East Northfield Water Company’s request.

“We would like as many people as possible to attend and write letters during the comment period,” said resident Katherine Harris during the Wednesday meeting.

Speaking by phone Thursday, Selectboard Chairman Alexander Meisner said he understands the residents’ concerns and echoed their sentiments.

“We’re really disappointed,” Meisner said. “For years these issues have gone unaddressed. Now, it’s coming back to hit the residents hard.”

Meisner explained that the Selectboard does not have any official power over the water company. Despite being elected officials, the board members can only voice their concerns like the rest of Northfield’s residents.

A 14-year issue

Conversation during last week’s gathering arose surrounding the relationship between Northfield Mount Hermon School and the East Northfield Water Company. Residents felt that NMH should take more responsibility for the debt the water company has accrued. While legally separate, the water company is owned by NMH.

East Northfield Water Company President John Alden said the water company has been operating at a loss nearly every year since 2005, when its largest customer, NMH, left Northfield to consolidate to its Gill campus.

“We’re embarrassed by the size of the request, but we cannot deal otherwise,” Alden said, regarding the large rate increases. “We are financially unsustainable long-term.”

The company’s problems worsened when no new occupant filled the Northfield campus. Though Thomas Aquinas College will open on the Northfield campus this fall, it will be at a much smaller scale than what would support the water company.

“It doesn’t come anywhere close to replacing 650 students and a couple hundred other individuals in terms of faculty and staff (of Northfield Mount Hermon School),” Alden said. Thomas Aquinas College President Michael McLean has said he hopes the new school will eventually enroll between 350 and 400 students.

During a public forum in June, Alden said there were no clear alternatives to rate increases for its small customer base. The water company only has about 300 customers.

Additionally, there has been no reported interest from other companies or organizations for a potential buyout. Alden said he believes the for-profit East Northfield Water Company should not be owned by the nonprofit NMH, and hopes the company can find a new home.

New filtration system necessary?

Alden told the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that “extreme” rate increases would come to the water company’s customers to pay for a state-required upgraded filtration system that could cost anywhere from $3.5 to $5 million. To alleviate some of this pressure on residents, he said he is seeking state or federal funding, should the filter be required.

“We want customers to know what the situation is and to candidly put pressure on state representatives to come up with solutions,” Alden said.

Alden said the upgrade would need to be installed at the Grandin Reservoir after eight of 52 biweekly water tests showed high levels of bacteria between April and September of 2018. Under DEP rules, a water source may fail no more than five of these tests in a six-month period.

At the time, Alden said a filtration system would have little to no effect on bacteria levels. He emphasized to the DEP that the water was never unsafe to drink, due to a purification process the water is run through after being drawn from the reservoir and before going to customers. Alden also claims that weather may have had an impact on the problematic tests, citing unusually hot weather that may have led to higher levels of bacteria.

It is still uncertain if the filter is required, but the latest quality reports from the East Northfield Water Company claim that the build-up of bacteria and sediments comes from a combination of aging pipes and soil in the water. If a filtration system is put in place, it would affect the ability to use fire hydrants in town by slowing down the pressure and speed of water flow. Alden said the water company has been advised it would need to install a 220,000 gallon tank for fire protection.

Upcoming meetings

The group of Northfield residents will meet again on Thursday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. at the library.

For more information about the September DPU meeting, contact Kevin Crane, hearing officer at the DPU, at 617-305-3500.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.

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