Pain At The (Water) Pumps: With One Well Back Online, Watering Rules Revised

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Drinking Water

CHATHAM — Thanks to a newly installed temporary treatment system removing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), one of the two Training Field Road public water wells is back online. While that provides some relief to the town’s over-stressed water system, abnormally dry conditions mean that mandatory water conservation measures are still important, town officials say.

The select board last week issued revised water conservation rules designed to allow more outdoor hand watering while tightening the limits on lawn irrigation.

Effective immediately, outdoor irrigation is allowed only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 3 and 7 a.m. and between 6 and 10 p.m., though judicious hand watering is allowed at any time. Under the rules, hand watering now includes hand irrigation of shrubbery, flow and vegetable gardens, as well as washing of outdoor furniture, boats and vehicles, but only when necessary. The order replaces a previous directive that allowed watering on certain days based on a property’s street number, and only in the evenings; the old order also prohibited the washing of vehicles, decks and patio furniture.

The rule change comes as the town’s water system operators activate a temporary PFAS treatment system at Well 5, one of two wells contaminated with the chemicals (see sidebar).

“We’ve been running a pilot study over there the past couple weeks, and everything is looking good,” Water Superintendent Tom Barr told the select board last week. The well will add pumping capacity of between 425 and 450 gallons per minute, which eases the strain felt last summer somewhat. But Well 8, which could pump 550 gallons per minute, remains offline because of PFAS. Barr said Well 8 would only be used in case of a major fire or other emergency, when its water would be blended with that from Well 5. A permanent treatment system for both wells is expected to be designed by October.

The town’s water capacity is still marginal, Barr said. At times of peak demand, there is barely enough pumping capacity to keep the town’s two water tanks full. When the tanks are too low, the entire system loses pressure. “This could be extremely challenging during a fire,” he said.

According to the University of Nebraska Drought Monitor map, the Cape and Islands are listed as “abnormally dry,” a step below a moderate drought. “I’m hoping not to get there, but it’s probably inevitable,” Barr said. As a result, groundwater levels remain very low, and are not expected to recover soon without a significant dose of precipitation.

The new limits on outdoor irrigation are designed to help the town’s wells catch up with demand. If lawns are watered only in the early morning and in the evenings, the wells will have time to refill the water tanks “and then hopefully get a rest before the next demand, the next surge of water use,” Barr said. “It would help the wells to be able to keep up with the water tank storage levels.”

“I think this is a very generous allowance,” select board member Dean Nicastro said. The new rules are more equitable and more comparable to those in place in surrounding towns, he added. But it is clear that the town needs to investigate locations for new wells, in addition to the ones currently being developed near Mill Pond, he said. “I think we probably should begin that process,” he said. “I just don’t think we should leave this to the future.”

Board Chair Jeffrey Dykens said Chatham needs to do the same kind of strategic planning for its water system that it has done with its sewer project. When it comes to capacity for the water system, “I feel as though we’ve been on our heels, not on our tiptoes looking forward,” he said.

“Long-term planning sounds like a superb and really compelling idea,” board member Michael Schell said. The board voted unanimously to direct the water and sewer advisory committee to study the town’s water usage, conservation measures, and needs for new wells and storage tanks, and to report its findings back to the board.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he supports the revised restrictions on outdoor watering, but urged residents to be prudent when it comes to irrigation. Established lawns and vegetation need only about one inch of water per week. “So if we get a lot of rainfall, you don’t need to have that irrigation system running,” he said. “There is nothing more frustrating than driving around in Chatham in a rainstorm and seeing irrigation systems running.”

PFAS Only A Problem In Chatham...For Now

CHATHAM — On the Lower Cape, the contaminants collectively called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have shown up only in Chatham’s public wells. But that might change.

“While a lot of towns will eventually be experiencing this, the surrounding towns – Harwich, Brewster and Orleans – have been very fortunate that they have not had PFAS contamination,” Chatham Water Superintendent Tom Barr said last week.

On June 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new health advisories for two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, replacing advisories issued in 2016, “in light of newly available science and in accordance with EPA’s responsibility to protect public health,” an agency press release reads.

“They significantly lowered the standards for PFAS,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said.

“The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time,” the news release reads. The EPA recommends that water system operators take steps to reduce levels further, but notes that a person’s lifetime exposure to PFAS is also related to other sources, including food, air and consumer products.

“Most uses of PFOA and PFOS were voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers, although there are a limited number of ongoing uses, and these chemicals remain in the environment due to their lack of degradation.” That tendency to persist in the environment is the reason PFAS are called “forever chemicals.” It is now up to the state to consider setting new PFAS standards for drinking water in Massachusetts.

“If those recommendations are adopted as they currently are, we will be seeing a lot more communities and a lot more wells – not only in Chatham but in many other locations – that will be in violation of PFAS [standards],” Duncanson said. From a regulatory perspective, “things are in flux right now,” he said.

The town of Chatham is continuing to advance a study to try and determine the source of the PFAS detected in two wells off Training Field Road. The town issued a revised request for proposals from consultants, and received five or six proposals, Duncanson said. All of the proposals focus on the area around those two wells, not the other parts of town that have so far had no detected PFAS.

While the study will attempt to identify a single source for the contamination, Duncanson has said that doing so may ultimately prove impossible because the levels detected in Chatham are so minute – and PFAS are so ubiquitous – that they might be entering the groundwater through multiple sources, including residential septic systems.