CHATHAM — On Sept. 14, responding quickly to news that a second town well had been taken offline because of contamination, select board members ordered a ban on all outdoor watering. Last week, they got a bit more specific.
“We’ve had a couple of questions come up,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith told the board. While the original order was intended to bring an end to the watering of lawns, some questioned whether it applied to the washing of vehicles, the filling of swimming pools and other uses.
Select board Chair Peter Cocolis agreed to have the board revisit the topic to clarify. “Sometimes you have unintended consequences,” he said.
The board agreed that, for the time being, there can be no watering of established lawns, shrubs or flower gardens, either by hand, by sprinkler and garden hose, or with an in-ground irrigation system. Washing of vehicles, driveways, sidewalks, decks, houses or outdoor furniture also remains prohibited.
Topping off swimming pools and hot tubs is still banned, as well. Under existing town rules, town water should not be used for the initial filling of pools and hot tubs.
Cocolis urged people to consider the seriousness of the strain on the water system, which is taxed by low levels in the aquifer related to the ongoing drought. According to the online Drought Monitor published by the University of Nebraska, all of Cape Cod has emerged from drought conditions with the exception of Chatham, which is in a moderate drought, and Harwich, Brewster and Orleans, which are classified as “abnormally dry.” Chatham’s capacity to pump water is hindered by the loss of two wells off Training Field Road to contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The town is urgently working to reactivate the long-shuttered Indian Hill Well to restore some pumping capacity, but that has not yet happened.
“We are in the middle of an emergency,” Cocolis said. “We have a problem.” With two wells offline, the town’s water system has lost between 30 and 35 percent of its pumping capacity, and low-level alarms in the water storage tanks have activated several times. Additionally, officials have had to temporarily suspend pumping in some of the wells in South Chatham because of groundwater levels.
While it agreed that clear mandatory water restrictions are needed, the board agreed that prohibiting certain outdoor water uses would create hardships for some. To that end, it voted to allow watering – if absolutely necessary – of newly installed lawns and plantings, and vegetable gardens. Any residents thinking of planting new trees or shrubs are asked to wait to do so. Also allowed is irrigation of plants required by the conservation commission.
The board also recognized that boaters are beginning to remove their boats from the water at end of the season. Water use at town landings and the fish pier is specifically allowed, as is the power-washing of boat bottoms and gear, and flushing of engines ahead of winterization. If possible, boaters are asked to wait a few weeks before doing so, however.
Select board member Cory Metters said it’s clear that some automatic sprinkler systems are still operating despite the ban. After a warning for the first offense, violators can be fined between $100 and $200, but enforcement is not easy.
“The reality is, we can’t be eyes everywhere,” Metters said.
The mandatory water restrictions apply to customers of the town’s water system. But town officials are also asking those with private wells to follow the same rules, since all wells are drawing from the same groundwater source.