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HomeNewsTown Water, Part 1: Ashland Pulled Out but Hopkinton Forged Ahead

Town Water, Part 1: Ashland Pulled Out but Hopkinton Forged Ahead

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Key Takeaways

  • Hopkinton voters are expected to be asked to appropriate at least $25mm to connect to the MWRA through Southborough.
  • The Water Resources Commission imposes conditions on all applicants, some of which Hopkinton may not be able to easily meet.
  • Hopkinton has sources of water in town that have not been explored.
  • Hopkinton loses about 20% of the water it pumps each year.

This is the first of a multipart series on Hopkinton’s public water supply, our connection to the MWRA, the engineering challenges we face, and costs.

For decades, municipalities have struggled with the decision of whether to use existing wells for public water or retiring their wells and shifting their reliance to another entity for clean, high quality water. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both options; On the one hand, using existing wells means the municipality retains full control over its water source, including management decisions, maintenance schedules, costs, and quality control measures. But it also requires the municipality to be responsible for all maintenance, quality and quantity, and regulatory compliance, all which add cost and complexity.

Joining a larger water system typically brings more reliability, quality and quantity to the town. They are also professionally managed and in theory can create cost savings through economies of scale. But there are downsides: Municipalities lose control over key aspects of water management, including rates, policies, and priorities, and they become dependent, making the town vulnerable to decisions and challenges faced by the larger system. 

Such was the case in 2016 when Hopkinton voters at Annual Town Meeting appropriated $1,000,000 to join the Town of Ashland to leverage a planned connection to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). The MWRA draws water primarily from the Quabbin Reservoir, and through its vast network of pipes, serves 61 metropolitan Boston cities and towns.

The town meeting vote was supported by a 2014 study the town completed by Weston & Sampson, who have long served as the town’s water quality consultant. The 146-page report describes in great detail Hopkinton’s existing water sources, delivery mechanisms, and associated equipment, and presents readers with a side-by-side comparison of two options: Whether to continue to bolster on our own water sources, or to join the MWRA through Ashland.

The report makes several spurious claims and assumptions that have turned out not to be true, and we will discuss them in this series, but notably, the report concludes with this analysis:

We recommend that Hopkinton continue discussions with Ashland to determine if these assumptions are viable and if a negotiated volume and rate can be determined. If Hopkinton cannot reach an agreement with Ashland for a long-term water supply in excess of their 1.0 MGD [Million Gallons per Day] agreement utilizing a combination of MWRA and the WTP [Water Treatment Plant], the additional cost of connecting to Southborough will change the recommendation away from the MWRA and back to an onsite WTP.

To summarize, the authors of the report concluded that connecting to the MWRA through Ashland was economically viable, but that any other way of connecting would not pencil out in the long run. 

Years later, Ashland decided to go to the MWRA without Hopkinton, and in the spring of 2022 the Ashland/Southborough water connection was completed. In spite of the Weston & Sampson report recommending we avoid the costs of connecting to the MWRA through Southborough and instead focus on building our own water treatment plants, Town Hall decided to forge ahead with a different plan to connect to the MWRA through Southborough. The MWRA through Ashland project was estimated to cost taxpayers $2.5 million; the MWRA through Southborough is expected to top $25 million.

DPW Director Kerry Reed expects to request these funds from Hopkinton voters at the 2025 Annual Town Meeting, with the aim of completing a connection to the MWRA through Southborough by way of two 12” pipes along Cedar Street. Engineering for this connection is 30% complete, and while Town Manager Norman Khumalo presents a generally upbeat report on the status of the project on a bi-weekly basis, there remains much work to be done. 

But as our analysis reveals, even if Hopkinton physically completes the plumbing to Southborough, there is no guarantee we’ll receive permission to draw water from the MWRA anytime soon.

Conditions of Connection to the MWRA

The Water Resources Commission (WRC) was established in 1956 and is responsible for developing, coordinating, and overseeing the Commonwealth’s water policy. One of the WRC’s responsibilities is the management of Interbasin transfer requests for the MWRA. In simple terms, the WRC approves which municipalities can connect to the Quabbin and how much water they are allowed to draw from it. 

In reviewing several recent decisions from the WRC, approval to connect has been granted with a strict set of conditions that the municipality must adhere to, and this is where Hopkinton is likely to run afoul of the process.

No viable in-basin sources

First, Hopkinton must prove that it has exhausted all of its local water supplies. In other words, there can be no viable local wells from which to draw our own water to meet our needs. But this is not the case in Hopkinton. 

Hopkinton currently draws water from three sources; The Fruit Street complex (Well #1 & #6), the Alprilla Farms well, which was given to the town as a condition of the Legacy Farms development, and from Ashland via a pumping station near Hopkinton State Park. Additionally, there are two wells on Donna Pass near Whitehall that are connected through School Street, but they have been turned off as the water contents are high in manganese, and the town only uses them in cases of emergency. 

The 2014 Weston & Sampson report also showed two wellheads that have yet to be drilled, indicated as WH-3 and WH-4 on the map below. When asked about the potential use of these wells as an additional source, Khumalo and Reed speculated that even if the town were able to operationalize these wells, we may not receive a permit from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to draw water from them.

Like the towns around us, Hopkinton draws from the Sudbury-Assabet-Concord River Watershed (SuAsCo). To ensure that the supply of water remains equitable, the DEP provisions maximum withdrawal permits to municipalities, currently set at about 1.7 million gallons per day for Hopkinton. 

“The state would not necessarily allow us to withdraw what the wells would be capable of, and even from our existing wells, they limit the amount we can take because they’re balancing it all,” said Reed.

Nonetheless, the WRC may deny Hopkinton’s application to connect to the MWRA due to the existence of these untapped wells.

Water Conservation Efforts

Hopkinton will also need to demonstrate to the WRC that it has a viable water conservation plan in place. A common example of a conservation plan includes limiting lawn watering during the summer months. 

One of the easiest ways to implement conservation is to replace residential water meters, as they fail over time and do not correctly meter the flow. In accordance with the American Waterworks Association, MassDEP recommends replacing residential water meters every 10 years.

>> RELATED: Town leaves more than a million on the table in uncollected water and sewer revenue

Up until COVID, DPW had engaged an outside consultant to replace approximately 10% of our residential water meters each year. But “the pandemic through a wrench into that,” said Reed, both from a labor and equipment standpoint. The WRC will likely require Hopkinton to replace several thousand water meters at a cost to residential payers, and well-documented supply chain shortages make this a daunting, if not impossible task for the foreseeable future.

In the WRC’s decision to grant Burlington’s application, meter replacement was a required step. Further, the WRC forced Burlington to begin billing customers at least quarterly (rather than twice per year), contending that more frequent visibility to water usage will cause customers to conserve more. Quarterly billing will create a burden on DPW and Hopkinton’s finance department that is currently not contemplated in the town’s plan.

Unaccounted for Water (UAW). 

Perhaps most vexing for Hopkinton is the WRC’s unyielding focus on Unaccounted for Water, or UAW. UAW is the difference between the amount of water put into the distribution system and the amount billed to consumers. This is measured in percentages, and every town in the Commonwealth is required to report their UAW to DEP annually.

The WRC is rightly concerned with municipal water loss, though a certain amount of loss is expected in public water works projects; pipes leak, after all.

Between 2016 – 2021 Hopkinton’s UAW averaged 20%, while our Residential Gallons Per Capita Day (RGCPD, or usage) averaged 61. But in 2022 there was a large spike in demand, resulting in an increase from 64 RGCPD to 78, while our UAW dropped to an astounding 3% (source, and see chart below). This metric places us among the best performing towns in the Commonwealth from a UAW perspective. This amount of drop is implausible, and the WRC would rightly be inclined to deny our permit based on that fact alone. 

A spokesperson for MassDEP, Edmund Coletta, wrote: “In the years 2019-2021, the Town of Hopkinton has had either a portion or all of their UAW values rejected due to a lack of backup documentation. While they were given the opportunity to respond with new data, it was not provided. This elevated their UAW values for those years. In 2022, all of their UAW documentation was accepted, which ended up providing a lower UAW value than had been seen in the last few years.

“The three percent is an obvious error,” said DPW Director Reed. “The real number for last year should have been closer to 20%.” Reed contends that while Hopkinton has submitted consistent data, state regulators have revised their formulas in recent years, creating swings in how they represent usage and water loss. 

A UAW of 20% in 2022 would be consistent with Hopkinton’s past performance, and it’s also where the WRC will have a problem. In all previous approvals, the acceptable amount of WRC is 10% annually. Again, in the Burlington decision, the WRC wrote:

Continue to implement core elements of a Water Loss Control Program to remain at or below 10% UAW and review and revise its Program as needed in accordance with standard industry best management practices.

With a UAW double the acceptable level, and no specific plan to address the problem, the WRC is unlikely to approve Hopkinton’s transfer application. Indeed, it is hard to justify a municipality only delivering 80% of the water it draws. 

Engineering Challenges

Unrelated to the WRC, the Hopkinton to Southborough connection presents several daunting engineering challenges. 

Notably, the engineering plan requires that Hopkinton construct a new pumping station at an estimated cost of $2.5 million. The Town Manager has reported that the proposed location of this station will be near the corner of Cedar Street and Rafferty Road, but this land is owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), who have thus far been unwilling to yield it. 

More problematic is the location itself, and its proximity to the nearby Eversource LNG plant on Wilson Street. In 2016, the Town commissioned a study performed by the safety firm Smith & Burgess that used Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) modeling of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) dispersion patterns from the LNG plant near Legacy Farms. “The Hopkinton LNG facility is bisected by a public road and consists of a gas liquefier/expander plant and LNG storage tanks. The plant and storage tanks are connected by piping which transitions underground below the road and returns aboveground on either roadside. The facility maintains large quantities of LNG. Thus, the worst case would be considered large,” reads the report.

In the event of a break in the piping between the storage tanks and the liquefaction factory across the street, the report surmises that the dispersion pattern would cover an area of greater than 3.8 miles, based on prevailing winds, and it explicitly excluded “ignition sources”, which would compound the magnitude of dispersion. 

The report includes several computer models. In one scenario, with a 4 mph wind from the south or southwest, the LNG disperses over the area where the new pump station is proposed to be built. Filled with electrical equipment, the pump station would be a potent source of ignition of LNG vapor, and would need to survive in an event where water is needed most.

But even if the engineering challenges are overcome, Hopkinton’s current water infrastructure is insufficient to pump all the water requested from the MWRA to the end of the line. Hopkinton currently pumps about 1.7 million gallons per day, but has preliminarily requested 2.7 million gallons from the MWRA. Director Reed concedes that we do not have the plumbing in place to deliver 2.7 million gallons. “That would require additional capital projects,” she said. Hopkinton will need to secure additional sewer capacity as well; what comes in must go out.

Through their consultants, the town is working on, but has yet to submit a formal interbasin transfer application to the MWRA, which in most cases takes approximately two years from submission to approval. 

In part 2, we’ll evaluate alternative options, including treating our own groundwater sources. 

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  1. Interesting article on an important topic. There are a few points that I found confusing/misleading.
    1. The 2016 proposal to cost-share with Ashland for its MWRA connection was for the purpose of increasing Hopkinton’s share of the output of Ashland’s Howe St water treatment plant. The 2016 Town Meeting slide explaining the warrant article states explicitly that Hopkinton would not become an MWRA community and would not receive MWRA water as a result of this. Hopkinton would have continued to operate its existing wells and would have purchased more of the Howe St plant’s output from Ashland. All of the water quality issues that have arisen since 2016 would still be issues to be overcome and Hopkinton would still face a decision between building new groundwater treatment plants or connecting to MWRA.
    2. It seems noteworthy that in 2022, MWRA removed the entry fee for new towns connecting to MWRA. Also noteworthy is that all of WRC’s published decisions are positive (with conditions for sure). And WRC states in its report on the Burlington connection that you reference that MWRA expects to have substantial spare capacity in its system even after Burlington, Ashland and other unnamed towns connect. The sense I got is that MWRA would welcome the additional business rather than seek to reject it, and that Hopkinton’s eventual application to connect will not be a bolt from the blue.
    3. I’m sure that this will be addressed in Part II of your series but the combined impact of deteriorating Manganese contamination in several wells, the PFAS contamination at Well 6 and the tighter regulations on both these contaminants is very significant in driving up the cost of maintaining the existing water sources.
    4. It’s worth noting that the existing Ashland WTP on Howe St is within the purple cloud in your illustration, NNE of the Eversource Plant and I imagine even more full of electrical equipment like switches and relays than an always-on pump station. And the liquefaction process at the Eversource plant is electrically powered.
    From my perspective, the key factor in the analysis is whether one believes demand for town water in Hopkinton will grow substantially in the next 25-50 years. If one expects growth, then the arguments for the MWRA connection appear very strong. If one expects decline or steady state, then there’s a case to be made for investing in new local treatment plants. Personally, I expect growth!

  2. A quick look at the MassGIS map indicates that there are privately-owned land parcels along Cedar Street/Rt 85 both south and north of the proposed pump station location on DCR land near Cedar and Rafferty Road. The town manager noted last night that taking land from DCR was quite complicated. Have the private land locations been evaluated? Seems that even taking private land would be much simpler than using DCR land.

  3. Great article in keeping this subject on the front burner.
    Yah- my fault I guess I missed meetings where this was presented ; the options evaluated and why the consultant report finding that the Southborough connection “will not pencil out” which I guess means financially and practically. I am looking to this paper to present the facts. But is there a short summary document at town hall I can read ?
    Why is this waiting to be bantered about so close to the town meetings to vote on it. This appropriation ask of $25 million for a major decision needs to be presented with a compelling case. Of course today’s $25 million will wind up being upped to to $30-35 million in the next few years. That buys a lot of alternative filtration installations at the wells plus exploratory well drillings, a lot of new meters and infrastructure upgrading.
    The $9.5 million in “free cash” (I think is poor labeling-it’s our cash in my opinion from budgeting misses and excess taxing) should for the time being be set aside for only contributing to water issues. Water is at the top of the list as a public safety and health issue. I think a town warrant would be appropriate for that set aside.
    I will go look for the Consultant’s proposal & summary, research if town meetings contain decisions to hopefully understand if and why the town has gone apparently in another direction than the recommendations of the report.


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