Neighboring Towns Hope Federal Dollars Can Ease High Cost of Water Needs

East Hampton may be best known for Lake Pocotopaug, a nearly square mile freshwater attraction, but that water does little to help town residents struggle to draw water from their wells every summer. 

Town Manager David Cox said East Hampton has been trying for decades to figure out a way to expand its water service to bring water to these residents and to provide clean water to others faced with expensive treatment systems to manage pollutants including magnesium and PFAS.

Nearby Portland has struggles of its own. Some of the pipes in the town’s 41-mile water system are over a century old. Antiquated cement pipe needs replacing, and it’s an expensive process for a small town with a limited budget  – millions of dollars that has to come either from customers or from grants and loans.

“To do one stretch of road for water, you’re probably looking at half-a-million dollars for like 1,200-1,500 feet of pipe – and that really doesn’t even include the restoration of the road,” Portland Public Works Director Bob Shey said.

So for small towns like East Hampton and Portland, the large sums of federal dollars coming down to municipalities in stimulus and from the American Rescue Plan suggest a generational opportunity to address decades-old infrastructure needs and to set the course of these towns for decades to come.

“We need to be looking 50 years down the road,” Portland Town Planner Mary Dickerson said. “We need to be adding infrastructure now that’s going to stand the test of time and allow us to promote economic development, which becomes economic and financial stability.”

For East Hampton, the primary goal is an expanded water supply with a more economical source of clean water. For Portland, the goal is to repair the system it has, but with an eye toward economic development, especially along Route 66 — something that’s been talked about for decades, Dickerson said. 

Financially stable small towns have stable water and sewer systems, Dickerson said. 

But water is expensive. The town is already facing a steep increase in the price of their main water supply from the Metropolitan District Commission, from a cost of $585,701 in 2019 to $857,000 this year.

Shey said the jump in costs was largely to pay for major capital projects needed to meet regulations. He said that he hopes prices will be more stable in the coming years, but that the higher costs take away from the money available for operations. With so much of the budget directed toward supply, Shays said, the town isn’t able to spend more than piecemeal on materials or repairs. 

“To throw a half-million dollar project – which ends up being a pretty small project – putting that into a capital budget with  2,300 users, that’s a big spike in the budget, and you have to try to offset that with revenue,” Shey said. “And there’s really few revenue sources other than charging you for the water.”

Portland has used bonds for larger water and sewer projects, including a $2.5 million project on Spring Street that was finished in 2019 and was critical to fix water issues in the area, said Shey. He said the town was also pursuing outside funding, like state-federal grants from the Clean Water Fund, for larger projects.

East Hampton is expected to receive only about $3.7 million from the American Rescue Plan, and only a portion of that will be spent on water infrastructure projects that could eventually cost tens of millions of dollars.

But town officials are hopeful that a larger, dedicated federal infrastructure plan will do more than fund high-profile road and bridge projects, and bring money down to municipalities to work on their stressed utility systems.

“The struggles some of our residents have getting good, potable water are real, and now as we look at additional funding sources, there’s ways to address that,” Cox said.

Dickerson said the idea is that expanded service would stabilize the costs of the system for the rest of the customers, especially if those costs are borne by federal taxpayers rather than the 2,300 Portland water customers. Stable costs mean more customers, which means more people to shoulder the burden of fixed costs of running the water and sewer systems, she said.

For East Hampton, the village center would likely be the starting point for any water expansion, but it will be critical to find a water source to allow for that. A drilled well might produce only 20-30 gallons a minute, he said. The town needs a source that could provide hundreds of thousands of gallons a day without affecting other customers or the environment.

Portland may need a new source of water, too. It’s water from the Metropolitan District Commission is clean and reliable, but the costs have risen quickly, and the town hopes to find a viable source that will cost its customers less.

Like Portland, East Hampton has received funding from the state to plan and design water projects that will be ready when the funds become available. And the two towns have had some conversations about how they could work together and find a water source on the Connecticut River that could serve both, Cox said.

“It’s a very costly activity, any infrastructure is, and you’re talking about connecting miles and miles of pipe,” he said.

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