AYER/LITTLETON — Last Friday, March 26, a press release was issued by the Ayer selectmen’s office that the town’s tap water was safe to drink despite the fact that the town declared a state of emergency on March 16 in the aftermath of last month’s first spate of rain storms.
As we head to press on Wednesday night, the drinking water remains safe to drink and the selectmen have opted to keep the town officially under a state of emergency.
What became abundantly clear over the course of last week for DPW head Dan Nason, however, was that the water levels were rising at Spectacle Pond due to the collapse in Littleton of a culvert under Route 119 that had provided relief to pond heights. With that came the realization that the sanitary seal atop the well heads for the town’s zone 2 drinking water source, located about a foot off the ground in a pump house at the end of Wagon Road past the end of NEMCO Way, was at risk of contamination.
And so, in the face of the emergency conditions, the Ayer Board of Selectmen convened a short-notice Sunday session to rally and vote in place an immediate ban on outdoor water use and a strong urging for conservation. Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi said the call had been made to surrounding fire chiefs, “Don’t wait for us to call” if you hear radio activity of a fire report in Ayer. Presume the assistance is needed, Pedrazzi said, until the town has its water woes in check.
Nason warned of a public relations nightmare if a “person turns on their faucets to fill a water bottle… there may not be water (meanwhile) they’re still making Pepsi.” Nason urged a gathering of the town’s heavy water users to ask that they partake in a temporary solution and slow their water draw. The selectmen agreed.
Would the food manufacturers be forced to stop production? Nason asked. “We obviously want to do that at the last possible moment that we’d be forced to do that,” answered Selectmen Chairman Cornelius “Connie” Sullivan.
In advance of the weekend, Nason mobilized his crews. Laborers grabbed tarps and effectively started “wrapping the pump houses in plastic,” said Nason.
Before contaminated pond water could even breach the sanitary seal on the pumps, water levels would have to first rise above the 480-volt electric service in the pump house.
As the well provides an estimated 60 percent of the Ayer’s drinking water, the decision was made to kill the power and take the well offline to prevent damage to the electrical infrastructure. A water tower atop Washington Street would be capable of providing temporary backup supplies, Nason said.
To pick up the slack, the one-line Grove Pond well-head pump was called upon to increase capacity. The second pump at Grove Pond had been disabled last year, dismantled in anticipation of receiving a new pump mechanism. Reversing course, the old pump guts were reinstalled as a temporary fix and the switch flicked on Tuesday. The two Grove Pond pumps have picked up the slack for Spectacle Pond, together pulling in nearly the town’s entire daily requirement of 1.3 million gallons per day.
Still, the situation called for caution. Ayer officials met with “significant industrial users” of water Monday, including Vitasoy, Cains Foods and Pepsi-Cola, which produces all of its Aquafina bottled water from Ayer’s public water source, and they pledged to cut the town’s daily demand by up to 10 percent, or 130,000 gallons a day, according to Nason.
One local nursing home agreed to cut down on dishwashing by using more paper products, Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski said. The little efforts by big-water users add up, but officials ask everyone to do their part to conserve water. “Without reductions in usage, Grove Pond alone cannot safely fulfill the daily demand for water,” Suhoski said Wednesday, “If things go as planned, the (water) restriction may be lifted in a couple of weeks.”
The collapse of the 5-foot-diameter culvert under Route 119 (a state road) is being managed by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. MassDOT has predicted a to-three week minimum road closure to make a fix between Route 225 and Gilson Road.
In the meantime the agency has set up a bay of pumps to try to keep up with the rising Spectacle Pond water level, and to pump the water downstream into Gilson Brook, also in Littleton. On a larger scale, MassDOT has opted to replace the collapsed culvert and dismissed calls to cut into the roadway to provide an emergency spillway to relieve “Spec Pond” water levels.
Ayer would ordinarily seek to link into Littleton or Devens water systems in times of crisis. However, Littleton Selectman Joe Knox said the town’s own well is only 100 feet from the collapsed culvert, but remains dry on high ground. Concerns linger there for the sanctity of that source.
Nason said on Sunday that another emergency route is for the town to connect with the Devens waterworks. “Right now, we don’t want to physically turn that valve,” Nason said. “Because of pressure, we may end up back-feeding them!”
Ayer is posting updates on its official Web site at www.ayer.ma.us.