May 06, 2023

Great Barrington’s water department has spent two decades and millions searching for a second water source. It’s about to give up


At the annual meeting last month of the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department, the commissioners announced that they would try once more to find a second source of drinking water before giving up. The district is buying an ultraviolet disinfection system that will help it reduce chlorine use and be a stronger guard against pathogens entering the water from the shallow Green River source.

GREAT BARRINGTON — For nearly 20 years, the town has spent millions of dollars in search of a new source of municipal drinking water.

Though the source at the Green River is plentiful and has supplied the town since the 1930s, the Great Barrington Fire District Water Department would like a second, deeper source that is less prone to bacterial contamination. It could also serve as a backup if the main system fails.

So far, that costly hunt has come up empty, but now the department is spending around $500,000 to give it one last go.

If that final attempt doesn't yield a good second source, the district has a plan that will satisfy state regulators: the installation of an ultraviolet disinfection system at the current water source, the aquifer at the Green River. But that will also be expensive.

The Green River, just below the pumping station at the source of Great Barrington's drinking supply.

While a UV system would cost $2.4 million, it would also reduce the amount of chlorine needed for disinfectant, district Superintendent Peter Marks told residents at the district's annual meeting in May.

Initially skeptical of the necessity of these and other items on the district's budget, residents were pleasantly surprised by the reasoning for them, and of the small increase to water bills. The district's commissioners assured them that the budget approved would only make their water costs rise about 25 cents per 1,000 gallons used.

There was no way around it, Walter "Buddy" Atwood III, chairman of the district's Prudential Committee, said of two decades plus of water exploration. The state Department of Environmental Protection had required it.

Resident Thomas Ferris had a few questions at the district's annual meeting about this continued drilling. "Do we just continue to go and go and go every year," Ferris asked, "and drop all this money?"

Atwood said no. "This is our last shot."

It's been cheaper, as it turns out, to drill unsuccessfully. It's avoided the district's having to buy a $10 million treatment system it might have been forced to install as a remedy if a deeper well couldn't be found, Atwood noted.

For its final attempt, the department is currently drilling in a marshy area to the east of town off State Road, and hoping for success. Atwood explained that the DEP requires that the well be gravel-packed, between around 200 to 500 feet deep and at least 400 feet away from buildings or highways. This is one reason it's not been an easy quest.

The district has run into a few issues with each potential water source once it had drilled down. Sand was one problem, Atwood said, since mountain erosion over time had deposited sand into much of the area that is within a 1-mile radius of town. While the water is fine, the pressure of pulling the water also pulls too much sand to fully filter.

The water district serves about 4,254 people, 59 sprinkler lines and 322 fire hydrants. It charges customers through the town on property tax bills and relies on two water tanks for both household service and firefighting.

Therein lies another problem. The district doesn't have an emergency backup supply, and those two tanks only give the town just three days of stored water in case the system collapses. The system currently requires the pumping of between 600 to 700 gallons per minute around the clock.

It's the sole reason the district wants to hook into Housatonic's system. It would give the town two more days of stored water, Atwood explained.

At the meeting, residents approved an earmark of $2.2 million for this hookup, but they were a little nervous. They wondered what this on top of the other expenditures would do to their bills, and to their water quality. The privately owned and embattled Housatonic Water Works Co. is an aging system with various problems, and which the town may try to acquire and operate.

Resident Sharon Gregory said she was worried about Housatonic's problems stretching into Great Barrington. But Marks reminded her that that the hookup is only for an emergency.

"If you're not getting anything out of your faucet," he said, "you’d be blessed to have what you get from there."

Gregory and Ferris also wondered what kind of increases ratepayers would face. "Maybe 25 cents," Atwood said. "Per 1,000 [gallons]."

Heather Bellow can be reached at [email protected] or 413-329-6871.


Heather Bellow, a member of the investigations team, joined The Eagle in 2017. She is based in the South Berkshire County bureau in Great Barrington. Her work has appeared in newspapers across the U.S.