Liberty Commons Curbs Water Use

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Drinking Water , Business

Signs announcing voluntary water restrictions recently went up around town. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

NORTH CHATHAM Faced with the potential of someday paying a premium as one of the town's largest consumers of drinking water, Broad Reach Healthcare is turning down the tap.

The parent company of Liberty Commons and the Victorian announced last week that it voluntarily put in place water conservation measures that, at least at first blush, seem to be having a beneficial effect.

Based on an analysis of actual water use, Liberty Commons is the second greatest consumer of water in town, second only to Chatham Bars Inn. At this time of year, the 132-bed facility typically uses between 10,000 and 13,000 gallons of water per day. Broad Reach President and CEO Bill Bogdanovich said their quarterly water bill is generally between $7,000 and $8,000.

Bogdanovich said the company analyzed its water use in the first quarter of 2017 and compared it with the second half of 2016 and found initial indications of a reduction. While their average water use fluctuates, and first quarter figures actually increased nearly 2,000 gallons between 2016 and this year, over the past nine years their average first quarter consumption has dropped about 15 percent.

Should the reduction in water consumption verify over time, Bogdanovich said he'd credit their conservation measures. The company routinely monitors its water use for spikes that could indicate an undetected leak, and finding none, investigated where most of the water was going. Most gallons weren't being used to top off the swimming pool used for physical therapy, or to water the lawn, since the irrigation system is connected to a private well. Most of the water use comes from flushing toilets.

“We have a lot of them,” Bogdanovich said. The company considered installing low-flow toilets but came up with a simpler solution: reducing the amount of water in the tanks by adjusting the level of the float ball in each tank.

“You couldn't ask for something simpler,” he said.

Larry Sampson, chairman of the town's water and sewer advisory committee, said the top 10 water consumers in town are all commercial enterprises. Chatham Bars Inn, which has properties on multiple water meters, has a combined water consumption that is perhaps 30 percent higher than Liberty Commons' water use, he said. Sampson said the town has reached out to both high-volume customers about finding ways to reduce their consumption, and found Broad Reach to be receptive.

“They took to heart what we had asked,” he said. The town compared the average water consumption of typical Liberty Commons residents, and found that they were each using as much water as an average household in Chatham. While nursing home residents may have greater sanitary needs than other people, “that seemed to be an extraordinary amount of water,” Sampson said.

Despite recent wet weather, the town is braced for the possibility of water shortages again this summer, related less to the amount of water in the aquifer than to the town's capacity to pump it out of the ground. Faced with increasing water use over time, the town is taking steps to bring two new wells on line; town meeting recently authorized funds to test the water from those wells to see if trace contamination from the gasoline additive MBTE, detected several years ago, has dissipated. The town is also building an iron and manganese removal plant, though Sampson said the facility will help more with the quality of the town's water than the quantity.

Developing new wells isn't an ideal solution, Sampson said, since the state Department of Environmental Protection caps the total amount of water the town is allowed to pump from the aquifer. Most towns on the Cape, including Chatham, are 10 to 15 percent over their existing allocation, he noted. Cape towns are petitioning the state to increase that quota.

Selectmen recently imposed a set of voluntary water restrictions designed to curb non-essential water use this summer, and signs announcing the restrictions have been placed on the roads leading into town. During last year's drought, state officials allowed certain off-Cape communities to impose mandatory water conservation measures, but only allowed towns in Barnstable County to levy voluntary restrictions “because we use water from the aquifer, as opposed to using surface water,” Sampson said. In some inland locales, excessive water pumping can lower the level of ponds and streams.

“We're asking everyone in the town to conserve to the best of their ability,” Sampson said. “My lawn looks like steel wool.”

This year, Chatham selectmen also adopted changes to the water regulations that control the amount of water used for swimming pools and in-ground sprinkler systems. As of April 1, 2018, no new turf irrigation systems will be allowed to connect to the town water system if a suitable private well is available. Any existing systems will also be required to switch to a private well, if one is available. The water regulations require timers and rain sensors on in-ground irrigation systems, which can only operate between midnight and 6 a.m. In-ground lawn sprinklers will be set to provide no more than one inch of water per week, and as of next year, cannot be expanded in size without town approval. The regulations also target swimming pools, and as of next April 1, pools cannot be filled or drained and refilled using town water, though town water can be used to maintain the water level. Irrigation systems and pools must be registered with the town, and violations of any provision of the new rules carry potentially hefty fines.

“People take their water for granted,” Sampson said. “Our job is to protect them from themselves, unfortunately.”

Town officials have considered charging higher rates to users who consume the most water, a proposal Bogdanovich opposes as unfair. Comparing residential and commercial uses is like comparing apples and oranges, he said. Charging a rate based on the amount of water used “by head or bed” makes more sense, he said.

Sampson said the town has no interest in “vilifying” high-volume commercial water users like Chatham Bars Inn, which help drive the town's economy and create valuable year-round jobs.

“But they need to consider the fact that, if we run out of water, their toilets will stop flushing at the same time my toilet stops flushing,” he said. If that happens in the summertime, “those folks are going to find themselves without income,” Sampson said.