Weir River Water System Managing Director/Superintendent Russell Tierney said he wants WRWS to be “the best water system in the area – we’re heading in the right direction,” during an operations update to the Select Board this week.
The water system was formerly owned by Aquarion Water Company before it transitioned to public ownership by the Town of Hingham in July 2020.
Tierney explained the capital projects that have already been accomplished in Hull and others that are in the pipeline for fiscal years 2023 and 2024, including a study of rebuilding a water storage tank on Strawberry Hill.
Of $5.4 million in capital improvements made during fiscal 2021 and 2022, $1.9 million was spent on new water mains for Atlantic and Gunrock avenues – at a cost of $1.6 million and $305,000 respectively.
“In all, $6.5 million has been expended on [overall] capital projects and system maintenance and repairs as promised,”Tierney said. These include upgrades and repairs to the water treatment plant in Hingham and the addition of 17 fire hydrants to the overall system. Also, 51 of 56 defective fire hydrants in Hull and Hingham were replaced.
“My goal is to never have a fire hydrant out of service,” Tierney said.
Customer service is a high priority, he said.
“We have received more than 35,000 customer service calls and responded to more than 10,000 customer requests through work orders,” he noted.
The original water system operating budget includes $2.7 million in annual capital investment for items such as water main replacements to be funded through water rates.
This is because the water system has many aging water mains (the typical life of a main is 70 years, and when Hingham purchased the system, the average age of the mains was 67 years).
Hingham Town Meeting voters recently authorized the borrowing of $5.4 for water system capital investment in the water system – half in FY22 and the other half in FY23 – that would be paid for by the system’s ratepayers, including Hingham, Hull, and North Cohasset residents and businesses. These funds will pay for the costs of designing, engineering, constructing, reconstructing, repairing, and improving the WRWS.
The Town of Hingham’s financial model for the purchase of the water system included an annual capital investment of $2.7 million for water mains and other major capital items within the system. This annual amount is projected to increase by 5% every three years, starting in FY24, subject to possible adjustment, according to the Hingham Town Meeting warrant.
Overall accomplishments that benefit all three towns served by the WRWS include “operating within budget while achieving all projected goals and objectives, both financially and operationally,” according to Tierney.
He also reported that the WRWS is compliant with lead and copper regulations as outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and that levels of the PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”) in the system’s water sources and finished water are being closely monitored.
While over the past four years, the average finished water was within the safety guidelines, WRWS achieved 100 percent removal, which Tierney said “is a testament to the work performed by the plant staff and our commitment to have the filters rehabilitated.” He noted that PFAS is a widespread problem in many communities.
“The lead and copper rules require that we sample a certain percentage of schools within our system during each sampling period,” Tierney explained. “In an effort to ensure compliance, the WRWS took a proactive approach and sampled every public school in April and May of this year.”
He was pleased to report that all the schools in Hull and Hingham that are connected to the WRRS were “under the action levels at the locations we tested,” including the Jacobs and middle and high schools in Hull.
All WRWS wells were completely rehabilitated, which allowed Accord Pond, a major water source, to “rest” and for water production to increase.
In other news, the Transition and Evaluation Committee will meet in FY23 regarding the WRWS governing structure, Tierney said.
Looking ahead, WRWS personnel are working on a site and hydraulic evaluation for a new water storage tank in Hull, and with the fire, police, DPW and sewer departments to improve overall communications and planning.
“Strawberry Hill is the number one site under consideration for a new water tank,” according to Tierney. The water company previously maintained a water tank on the hill for decades.
FY23 capital projects for Hull include design of a replacement main only in the area of Manomet Avenue ($100,000), plus overall improvements that would affect all three towns.
Tierney also explained that the recent acquisition of Suez Water Environmental Service (the initial WRWS operator) by Veolia North America (which sought to be the operator when the system transitioned to Town of Hingham ownership) will not change the on-site staff, customer service, or management team and that current customer account numbers will not change, nor will the notification system.
“If you were registered with Suez, you are registered with Veolia,” Tierney explained. The water bills will also look the same, except for the new Veolia logo.
Town Manager Philip Lemnios noted that Veolia will be required to operate under the same contract that existed between Suez and WRWS.
“[Tierney’s] role is not with Veolia but to ensure contract compliance on behalf of all the ratepayers to be sure the contract is executed appropriately and that ratepayers are getting value for their money,” Lemnios said.
Tierney also alerted customers that discolored water in the system – which some customers have experienced lately – is due to the age of the existing water mains and maintenance of the system.
“We will continue to implement the flushing program and make system improvements to minimize these events,” he said. “This is not due to a lack of water supply or treatment issues, but more due to past maintenance practices.”
He also explained that chlorine is a vital part of the treatment process, most importantly as a disinfectant.
“We have been focused on ways to decrease the chlorine levels in the system to improve the aesthetic quality of the water,”Tierney said. “A new tank strategically located in the system will improve this significantly.”
Unaccounted for water has been a persistent issue for several years, averaging more than 20 percent of the water produced.
“WRWS will continue to invest capital funds annually for improvements to the system that will help reduce UAW and investigate other causes of this [issue],” Tierney also reported.
WRWS will also invest in additional leak detection programs and system audits over the next several years.
“The expectation is to reduce UAW to under 10 percent, resulting in reduced operation and maintenance costs,” he explained.
On another note, WRWS is working with consultants to complete the cost–of–service study to ensure the water system and capital work performed are sustainable for the future.
In response to a question about potential rate increases posed by Select Board Chair Jennifer Constable, Tierney responded, “Not this year. Our rate study is nearly complete, and we’re reviewing it now.”
The board and Lemnios had high praise for Tierney.
“He has a good working relationship with town departments, the police and fire departments, the DPW and [Director of Wastewater Operations] John Struzziery,” he said, “and he’s very customer service-oriented.”
Tierney said while it it’s “a big job,” he thinks “we can all make it the best system possible,”
Select Board member Domenico Sestito said he’s seen “more transparency [following the transition]” than he saw “in 10 years with the prior operator.”