MWDN: State water panel looks at infrastructure improvements

WESTBOROUGH -State Rep. Carolyn Dykema is borrowing a line from Ben Franklin a lot these days: “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”

Dykema says the phrase has a growing relevance as the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission works to develop a long-term plan to pay for water infrastructure improvements in the state.

The commission, led by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, met yesterday at a public hearing in Westborough, where speakers presented a list of water issues faced by Massachusetts cities and towns: crumbling infrastructure, stressed watersheds and ever-changing regulatory environmental mandates that leave wastewater treatment plants struggling or unable to comply.

David Terry, the drinking water manager from the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the Weston water main break that left about 2 million people in Greater Boston without potable water for several days last spring brought home the urgency of shoring up infrastructure.

“I’m worried that my kids and grandkids are going to pay the bill for this unless we step up now,” he said.

Terry said assessments conducted by the state in 2007 and 2008 estimated that Massachusetts would need around $15 billion to repair the state’s aging and overtaxed drinking and wastewater systems. That number does not include estimates on the cost of repairs and improvements to the way the state handles stormwater runoff.

Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, said that in the 1970s around 70 percent of water system projects were federally funded, but today the financial burden falls mainly on cities and towns. When projects are funded, costs are often passed on to ratepayers.

The Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which offers 2 percent loans for infrastructure projects, is one way towns and cities can finance upgrades.

But Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, a regional economic advisory council, said the fund should be modernized, because some towns don’t participate because of the cumbersome application process and competition for limited funds.

“Some cities feel they’ll get a better deal in the private sector with less strings attached,” he said.

Holliston Water Commissioner Jeff Weiss said his town faces prohibitive costs to replace 75-year-old asbestos-concrete pipes that carry water from wells that already draw at the maximum daily rate.

Weiss said that at an estimated repair cost of $800,000 per mile, his town could only afford to repair one mile of its 100-mile-system per year.

But Matthews pointed to recent projects in MetroWest that used innovative solutions to pay for needed projects that will also spur economic growth.

The Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant in Marlborough and the Hopkinton-Milford South Street Sewer expansion project used a combination of state and local corporate funds to pay for the work.

In another example, Genzyme in Framingham was able to expand with state funding for water infrastructure that came out of the state’s Life Sciences Initiative.

Dykema said such initiatives illustrate how funding water infrastructure can create jobs and help businesses expand.

“The growth we need can’t happen without water,” Dykema said.

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