Water Use And Residents Increased In 2020, But Pandemic Depressed Other Year-end Figures

By: Tim Wood

Topics: COVID-19

The pandemic is likely responsible for a 44 percent drop in the estimates wholesale value of commercial shellfish landings in town last year. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Year-end statistics gathered from town departments bear out some of the anecdotes about the way the pandemic impacted the community during 2020.

More people stayed in town longer in the fall, water department usage figures indicate. There's also been an uptick in the number of residents and registered voters.

However, other figures showed slowdowns that may be indicative of less activity due to the pandemic shutdown and quarantines. Health department inspections, rescue runs and crimes were all down – some only slightly – over 2019 levels. Shellfishermen took a significant economic hit, with the estimated value of wholesale commercial landings down 44 percent.

When the pandemic struck, there was concern that a lot of second homeowners would head to town to escape places with higher infection rates. In March and April, local realtors and contractors said they'd had many times the usual requests than usual to turn on water in seasonal homes. Water usage figures seem to support that trend. Pumpage levels were especially higher in the summer and into the fall.

“There was definitely a larger use that stayed later and came down earlier,” said Public Works Director Tom Temple. During 2020, the water department pumped 47 million gallons more than in 2019. In both years, the town exceeded the 1.32 million gallons per day state withdrawal permit, Temple said. Numerous attempts to increase the withdrawal limit have failed, but so far, he said, there haven't been any repercussions for the violation.

More importantly, Temple said, is that the region is still in a drought, with water levels in town wells up to 14 inches below where they should be. This winter's snowfall will help recharge the water table, and a prohibition against connecting private irrigation systems to town water and filling swimming pool goes into effect. “That's a plus,” he said.

Two new wells will also be coming online, both of which just underwent prolonged testing. The additional 700 gallons per minute they will add will help address continued high use and allow more downtime for other wells, Temple said.

The town also saw a jump in the number of year-round residents and registered voters. It's not unsual for more people to register to vote in a presidential year; in December, Town Clerk Julie Smith reported 378 more voters registered than in December 2019. The number of residents as of last month stood at 6,561, an increase of 304, or nearly 5 percent. The town has seen a slow but steady rise in the population since 2015, when the number of year-round residents dropped below 6,000.

Building activity was also up for the year, but only slightly. The total number of building permits issued in 2020 was up 27 from the previous year, but the estimated total value of construction was down by just over $500,000, from $80,094,870 in 2019 to $79,577,989.

There were 34 new home permits issued in 2020 compared with 31 in 2019. There were 21 demolitions last year, one more than the previous year. Residential addition/renovation permits increased from 818 in 2019 to 825 last year. There were no new commercial structures permitted in the past two years.

Other departments reported decreases in activity. This was most starkly seen in the value of shellfish landings for the year, which were significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants early in the pandemic, depressing both demand and price. The estimated wholesale value of the commercial harvest dropped by 44 percent, from $2,540,728 in 2019 to $1,416,422 last year. The quahog harvest was most impacted, with the wholesale value dropping by more than half. In her most recent report to the town manager, Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne noted a bright spot, with Cockle Cove and Mill Creek reopening, resulting in a significant increase in landings in December. Wholesale values for the month were more than twice the estimated value compared December 2019, with the quahog harvest seeing the biggest spike.

Other indicators shows minor decreases. Ambulance runs were down from 1,100 in 2019 to 961 in 2020, with a similar decrease in overall calls to the fire and rescue department. Crimes reports to the police department were down in just about all categories. The number of notice of intent requests filed with the conservation commission decreased from 80 to 69. The number of food handler's permits issued by the health department dropped from 190 in 2019 to 112 last year, a result of the pandemic. The health department issued a total of 495 permits last year, compared to 535 in 2019.