Oak Bluffs citizens urged to conserve water

Water district pumps are already running close to capacity as summer surge begins.

Oak Bluffs officials are asking consumers to be mindful of water usage as peak season approaches. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Oak Bluffs is peppered with “Temporary Water Ban” signs, but water district superintendent Kevin Johnson is concerned that over time, these signs have faded into the scenery, and likewise, their message has fallen off the radar.

“There is still a temporary water ban in Oak Bluffs,” he told The Times. “Unfortunately, nobody pays attention to it. As we roll into summer, we’re trying to remind everyone that they need to conserve.”

Mr. Johnson said that the Oak Bluffs Water District (OBWD) is already running close to capacity. “It’s not that we’re limited by the amount of water in our aquifer,” he said. “The state forest is an incredible recharge area; we’re very lucky that way. We’re more limited by our ability to pump the water,” he said.

He said 85 percent of the town water is consumed during the summer months. Last August, the OBWD pumped an average of 2 million gallons a day in August, more than double the 0.93 million gallons-per-day limit set by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). The spike on July 4th also stretches OBWD limits — last year 2.9 million gallons per day were pumped over the holiday weekend.

“My biggest concern is being able to maintain fire protection during these spikes,” Mr. Johnson said. “Potable water is also a top priority, but a water shortage for the fire department during a summer dry spell could be a disaster. If we get into a situation where water consumption exceeds our supply, I’m going to reach out to the fire department to do a reverse 911. It’s that crucial,” he said.

According to the conditions of the temporary water ban, which was initiated by the OBWD in 2006, from May 1 to Sept. 30, nonessential outdoor water use is supposed to be done on an odd/even system, meaning even-numbered addresses can water on even-numbered days, and vice versa. Mr. Johnson is asking residents to adhere to the watering schedule, and to monitor their individual water use.

“We really rely on people’s best judgement when it comes to water conservation,” he said. “Our water is a precious resource, and we all take it for granted.”

Mr. Johnson also encouraged people to look into alternative water sources like rain barrels. “Rain barrels are a great way to conserve,” he said. “I hope more people see the benefit of having one. It’s a perfect water source for gardens and lawns.”

New well needed

To address the growing water demand in Oak Bluffs, Mr. Johnson said the OBWD is actively seeking to develop a new well, but it will be an expensive, lengthy process. He estimated that a new well will cost in the range of $7 million, and take seven to eight years to build.

“We need a 14-acre parcel to start a new well, so our property cost will be significant,” he said. “We have engineering costs, and testing costs, and a permitting process can take seven years.”

The OBWD currently operates four wells, the Lagoon Pond Well, the Farm Neck Well, the State Forest Well, and the Madison Alwardt Sr. Well. All four wells tap into the Island’s aquifer. The Lagoon Pond Well is the oldest active pumping station in Massachusetts.

Given that it’s going to be some time before the OBWD can add a new well, Mr. Johnson said, water conservation needs to be back on people’s radar, especially in the coming months. “People need to look for leaking faucets and leaky toilets,” he said. “Irrigation systems need to be maintained so they’re not spraying into the road. If you know rain is coming, turn off the system. We’re just asking people to use common sense.”