The Block Island Times

Water, Water

By Martha Ball | Mar 21, 2014
Photo by: Kari Curtis

Ed. note: Martha Ball wrote this overview of our drinking water after we learned that a non-profit recently awarded Block Island water as “best tasting” in our division. Apparently, it wasn’t always so. Martha’s regular column will return next week. See the details of the taste test on page 6.

“We won ‘best tasting water’ in Rhode Island,” the superintendent of the Water Department, John Breunig, quietly offered one afternoon last week. It was a Post Office conversation, begun with the level of boxes (mine, he opines, is the perfect height, but he is quite taller than I), and it went on to the absurd cold and a simple question about the process at the treatment plant he oversees on the edge of Sands Pond.

Good news is always welcome, especially in March, and later on I think this is another milestone on a long and winding road the town embarked upon in the 1980s, the night the fact of dead birds floating in the old wooden water tower came to the Council table.

Decades earlier, when we were children and complained when we drank from the tap at my aunt’s house on Chapel Street, our parents’ dismissal was quick and unqualified. “It’s town water” — so-called long before the company belonged to the municipality. It became a catchall explanation for myriad horrors over the following years, tiny bugs in the school drinking fountain, glasses of reddish liquid, ever-present rust stains.

The family-owned company was sold with great expectation to a group of local businessmen who wrestled with it but were unable to turn it around on a meager operating budget and without the access to funding municipal ownership facilitated. Then came the turning point, when photographs of those dead birds came to the table. Serious discussions ensued (of course, there was the inevitable, “There have always been dead birds in that tank,” as though that somehow made it all okay). The sewer system was in place and redevelopment of the business district was a reality; the importance of a reliable supply of good water for commerce was widely acknowledged. The town had to buy the aging system. Exactly how little of it was salvageable was uncertain at the time.

It was a hard climb out from that day to these last years when things have been going well. The old cypress tank, once white, then faded to gray, was dismantled and removed. There exists a photograph of it being drained, one that made no sense until someone explained that the dark brown plank leaning against the tower was actually a stream of water. Patches on the distribution lines were the stuff of legend; as was, too often, the location of those lines. There were no meters; at the onset sewer and water bills were computed using labor-intensive manual calculations based on estimated flows and the number of fixtures.

One, and then another, of the two big dark blue tanks that today are visible for miles were built and, slowly, the system was updated, mains replaced, meters installed, technology upgraded, but despite all that and infusions of grant and loan monies progress was faltering. The town went through years of trying to make do, resisting the reality that the facility needed more than a skeleton staff. Then there were periods of questionable methodology, pumping rust-laden water from deep wells directly into Sands Pond, where it evaporated at alarming rates, especially with spring-time transpiration. Water was drawn from the pond through an “outtake” and then run through filtration units. Then the slag — backwash — was flushed into the pond.

Truly, it was.

The rocks lining the pond were red with rust and the Council came to cringe at the word “turbidity” and dread weekly reports of supply and demand.

One year the National Guard came with great trucks to haul water overland from Fresh Pond into Sands. The afternoon the plane hit the gas station and people died, in a state of island-wide shock and mourning, we had also to deal with the fact that nearly a tank of treated water had been consumed fighting the fire. Routine pressure testing of hydrants seemed nothing more than a waste of a too-precious commodity.

The council would get lists of conservation measures — I occasionally still see a little blue and white “the water you save today you have tomorrow” sticker – which astonished me. Growing up with a dug well ten feet deep one did not waste water or it truly would not be there. Reading these things people had to be told not to do I blurted out “but who does this?!” horrified at the thought anyone could take water for granted. It cannot have been as long a time span as it felt that we had varying degrees of restrictions in place and did count the days until Labor Day, when demand would lessen.

The level of Sands Pond lowered and the quality of the water worsened until a full algae bloom overtook it; things that had worked in nearby Rhode Island communities were tried, including dragging the pond with toxic-sounding chemical compounds. The damage that had been unwittingly wrought was undeniable from the air. The island was dotted with water bodies sparkling blue in the sunshine, but our reservoir, the source of our drinking water, was bottle green and obviously dead.

The call to abandon ship and move to another, better, more plentiful water source increased. Not everyone thought that the best course of action. While covetous eyes looked to Fresh Pond, others refused to take such a leap, convinced we had no right to ruin — as we surely would — another irreplaceable resource.

We were railed against; we, the Town Council in concert with the Land Trust, were told we were destroying the economy of the island by blocking the installation of an underground line to Fresh Pond. We had almost no water and summer was rapidly approaching; a temporary overland pipe was installed — in lieu of a 90-some thousand dollar no-bid underground permanent line that would be used “only in emergencies” —the final joints sealed as the boats sailed into the harbor for Race Week.

Killing Fresh Pond was a short-sighted solution that some believed would do no more than put future governing bodies in the same fix. Time was bought with an Environmental Impact Statement exploring existing and alternative sources. The possibility of well fields in another part of the island was discussed and tentative cost analyses run. The Land Trust had a well driven on land it owned in the Old Harbor and exhaustive testing to determine its level of salinity were conducted.

We had to have the science, it was a matter of finding and applying it and somehow, in the midst of all the shouting and recriminations wheels of progress did begin to turn. Treatment of water directly from the existing wells to the plant was revisited, reverse osmosis became a considered option. Looking back, there may have been one pivotal meeting, one day when the hostility that had been raining down like dreamed of water hit a peak, things began to shift and reason returned, sure as a late coming spring.

Unease grew as the level of Fresh Pond lowered and attention shifted from it — or blocking that grab — to making the Sands Pond well field work. A water district, modeled on the established sewer district, was drawn and legislation prepared and gotten through the General Assembly.

Treatment was revisited and reinvented, pumping the untreated resource into the pond ceased and backwash sent into the sewer system. The boil water orders that had been lifted were no longer a threat, the scope of the improvements gained recognition and the system began garnering awards instead of warnings. The district continues to expand and, even as I write, discussion of connecting a new well continues.

The work of an extraordinarily gifted group of volunteers — one of whom almost single-handedly ran the plant in the early days — and good employees led by a serious of fine superintendents, such as the young man in the Post Office last week, took hold and those dark days became a distant memory. Our town has been fortunate to have these water geeks at the helm, ones who understand the dynamics and science of water and who recognize the value of secondary responsibilities such as establishing and keeping live a weather station we can all access on the internet. This last award is one in a long string of honors; the greatest testimony perhaps that we have come from relief at making it through a summer to not worrying day to day about supply or quality.

Among the unintended consequences of not ravaging Sands Pond, not drawing upon it after a century of use, was that it rose to levels unseen for decades, threatening houses built along the shores. One had to be relocated, and yards were diminished, as discussions of possible drainage over the bluffs faltered, a proposal as horrifying to this non-scientist/engineer/geologist as the old method of disposing of backwash.

A little perspective can be heartening. This past winter, I have heard people wonder if there has been such prolonged discord and I have thought, of course, there has, but not in my time. Then I opened the dusty files and the terrible years of restriction and boil water orders and range wars fly out like all those evils in Pandora’s Box. It is easier to remember, with the distance of time, that in many versions of the myth Hope is the last thing to escape.

Sands Pond was described in a 1909 guidebook as supplying the village with water and furnishing “bass, perch and pickerel as an inducement to fishermen.” Ninety years later we doubted in our lifetimes it could recover the abuses showered upon it.

Last week in the Post Office the news was of this recent award, but also of significance was the report of the health of the pond. “People are fishing there.”

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