Water Woes

Concerned about the ability to effectively fight fires, Ashland was looking into some form of municipal water system as early as 1875. A committee was appointed to study the needs and resources that existed in town, and this was their recommendation:

“The cheapest supply of water for the town, to put out fires, will be obtained by putting a pipe into the Pond of the Dwight Print Company [Mill Pond], and laying it down through Main Street, with Hydrants as often as 500 feet. If such a pipe was laid as far as Central Street, it would seem to meet all the present needs of the village, and could at any time be extended in any direction to meet the future wants of the place…”

The committee estimated it would cost the town $4345.00 for this project. But for whatever reason, most likely financial, the townsfolk decided not to move forward with the proposal. Instead, they continued to use wells in various locations to fight fires and fill water troughs. They must have felt secure with this system because no other attempt at municipal water was made until 1901. Again the question was raised, and again the townsfolk said no. It wasn’t until 1906 that the town finally agreed to pursue the matter. At Town Meeting, a loan for $60,000.00 was approved to purchase land, create reservoirs where needed, and for general administration of the project.

Acting upon approval from the General Court, Ashland established its first Board of Water Commissioners in 1910. Now funded with only $50,000.00 (I don’t know what happened to the other $10,000.00) the Board hired William S. Johnson, a noteworthy waterworks engineer, to design the system.

Coming as no surprise, Mr. Johnson focused on Mill Pond as the best water resource. For his first well, he selected a location near the north bank “where the configuration of the ground and its elevation above the village gave favorable indications as regards freedom of pollution and probable abundance of water…” [Report of the Water Supply Committee]. Driving a 1 1/4 inch extra heavy pipe down 23 feet, Johnson found potable water “excellent in quality and abundant.” This well, along with three others that were driven, provided the town in excess of 40,000 gallons of water a day. Officials were pleased with the results and felt that it would be several years before the town would require more water than that.

Expanding the new system, a new pumping station off Fisher Street was built and powered by kerosene engines in 1911. Later, a second pumping station drawing off of a total of 15 wells was constructed just south of the point where the Sudbury River and Indian Brook meet. A 300,000 gallon standpipe was also constructed off Myrtle Street to supplement the system.

But with any growing community Ashland’s water needs grew with it. By 1937 a total of 31 wells supplied the second pumping station. Even with the Great Depression, and money being tight, Ashland was fortunate to receive federal grant money from the W.P.A. to complete the water projects.

That wasn’t the end however. In 1941 the town experienced a drought that severely taxed the water system. Increased manufacturing facilities in town didn’t help the situation either. Much like our recent arrangement with Southboro, Ashland had to purchase water from Framingham to meet our demand. To increase capacity, Town Meeting appropriated $65,000.00 to build a new pumping station near Lake Waushakum, and to construct a new 1 million gallon standpipe just north of the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets. This new standpipe was to be built at the same elevation as the one on Myrtle Street.

Working quickly, most of the construction was completed by the end of the year.

In the more recent past, Ashland, along with Hopkinton to a lesser degree, built a new water treatment plant on Howe Street replacing the aging existing facility. The Hopkinton Reservoir essentially feeds the plant and we have all seen what happens to the Hopkinton Reservoir during droughts. Today, the Howe Street well still provides 100% of the Ashland water. Documentation from the Ashland Water Department web site showed in 2005 for example, the site pumped 660 million gallons of water, or an average of 68 gallons per household, per day. Not to place all the eggs in one basket, the town did look in other places for water. Unfortunately, test wells dug on Spring Street showed contamination that is difficult to remove even if the source is identified and removed, and water from wells dug in the Waushakum area showed high concentrations of iron and manganese. There was even a thought of having the MWRA supply us some water. With the prices the MWRA charges us now for sewer, the water rate would probably rival light sweet crude from OPEC.

The year is now 2009, and I can’t help feeling a little deja vu. We still have yearly water bans, odd-even use days, MWRA restrictions, you name it. The recent decline in the new home market has eased the demand for now, but real estate is cyclic, and we all know it will come around again.

Let’s hope we’re prepared.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions