Debate Over Federal Aid Threatens to Delay Water Project in East Lyme

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EAST LYME — A well on one of the town’s most pristine drinking water sources has deteriorated to the point where it is providing just a fraction of the water it once produced, and will require a new drilled well.

It’s a $920,000 project that could be funded with federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act, but a recent vote by the Board of Finance has delayed the allocation of that money as town officials debate when and how the money will be spent.

Well 5 – located off of Wagon Wheel Road, near Pattagansett Lake – was drilled in 1994 and once produced 780,000 gallons a day. Over time, as iron and manganese deposits accumulated around the wellhead, that production dropped to a peak of less than 200,000 gallons of water a day.

Ben North, the town’s municipal utilities engineer, explained that there had already been several attempts over the years to try to clear out the deposits from the wellhead — a common solution for this type of well — but that each effort came at cost of $30,000 and with diminishing returns.

“We did it in 2019 and didn’t really see any improvement at all, and we had done it in 2016 and seen very little improvement, and so on,” North said.

The constrained flow also puts more strain on the town’s other wells, which need to run more to make up for the lost production.

The limited flow also means that about $5 million worth of equipment isn’t working to its full capacity, and the well with the lowest levels of sodium in town and relatively low levels of iron and manganese is not contributing as it should to the town’s water supply.

North said the town has already identified a spot where they can drill a new well that will be capable of producing 500-600 gallons per minute – about what the capacity was when the well was first built in 1994.

About $150,000 of the cost of the project comes from drilling and installing the well itself, and the remaining money would go towards upgrading the water treatment building, rehabilitating the filters that remove iron and manganese from the water, and sandblasting and repainting pipes, North said. It includes $120,000 in contingency funds.

“So not only are we talking about a new well, we’re talking about upgrading the treatment facility and giving it a life expectancy of another 20 years,” North said.

Window of opportunity

North told the Board of Selectmen last week that the winter was the best time to replace the well because the demand on East Lyme’s system is lower. He said he had spoken to contractors who would be able to start work “in a matter of weeks,” and that they could get the project done in three months.

North said he isn’t certain, but believes the town may lose its window for completing the project this winter if the funding isn’t approved within the next month or two.

On Wednesday, the Board of Finance decided to delay a vote on a package of requests for ARPA funding – including the $920,000 well project.

North also said that a  preliminary approval for the new well from the Connecticut Department of Public Health will expire on March 27, so that application process would need to be restarted if the project is delayed until next winter.

Board of Finance Chair Camille Alberti – the Democratic candidate for East Lyme First Selectman – pushed to postpone a decision on the ARPA funding requests over concerns that a disbursement of those funds approved at an earlier town meeting was improper

Alberti explained that she didn’t question the merits of the project, but did question the decision-making process.  Alberti told CT Examiner that she was concerned the Water and Sewer Commission hadn’t reviewed projects that could be funded by the town’s $5.4 million in federal ARPA money until its Sept. 28 meeting.

The commission reviewed four projects at that meeting, including the $920,000 proposed Well 5 replacement. The commission also considered a $550,000 proposal to sandblast and recoat the inside of a water tank on Boston Post Road, a $250,000 proposal to replace two pumps and make other improvements at the Niantic sewer pump station, and a $300,000 proposal to replace three pumps at the Pattagansett sewer pump station.

North said deciding between those projects was not easy, because they all will need to be done. But he said the Well 5 project gave the commission the best opportunity to limit the impact on ratepayers. 

Given that East Lyme has a sewer assessment, but no assessment for water, it would be easier to fund the sewer pump stations another way, North said. 

North suggested that there are additional sewer projects in the future that could include the pump station. The well project, he said, was a more critical need.

“Well  5 is increasing the redundancy of the system. After the Wells 1 and 6 project, we’re in a much better position than we were previously. But if one of those wells were to go down, we’d be in a very difficult position,” North said. “So we felt that proving a larger quantity of water was crucial.”

Kevin Seery, the current selectman, and  the Republican candidate for First Selectman, said the well project has to be done – whether with ARPA money or by bonding it out – and the Board of Selectmen felt it was a priority to ensure access to clean water for the roughly 60 percent of the town served by municipal water.

“This is the best time of year to do it because we don’t have the summer residents, so we have less stress on our system,” Seery said. “Getting it done now would be beneficial.”

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