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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Town seeks improved water

When Peter Kulbacki walks in to meetings with the board of directors of Hanover Water Works Company, everyone is drinking bottled water.

"I always tell them, 'You're selling drinking water, but you're drinking bottled water,'" recalled Kulbacki, director of public works for Hanover and director of the Water Company.

The story illustrates the defining characteristic of Hanover's drinking water. "Essentially we have horrible water quality," Kulbacki said. "It's safe, but no one wants to drink it."

But, after years of inaction, the Water Company is now preparing to construct a new water filtering plant that will drastically improve the quality of Hanover's water and could be online by fall of 2005.

The new plant will cost over $5 million, and will solve the aesthetic problems of the water's taste, look and smell.

The first step in building the new plant is to hire an engineer, which should happen next month. He or she will do a pilot study, essentially building a small filtration plant that can later be expanded.

The new engineer will also study the problem in greater depth, including investigating at how much water the new plant could generate and administering a survey that will look at questions such as how much more residents are willing to pay to fund the loan for construction and operation of the plant.

By the end of August or early September, the Water Company will pull together the engineer's work in to a petition they will present to the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, which must approve the loan that will allow the Water Company to build the filtering plant.

The NHPUC will take from three to six months to review the petition, and could give approval by late March or early April of next year.

Then different companies will submit designs and bid on the contract to build the plant while the Water Company borrows money for it. After that it will be built -- the finished plant could be online by summer or fall of 2005.

Hanover's water complies with the Clean Water Act -- it is safe to drink -- but the system remains largely the same now as it was when it was first built.

The water comes from the town's reservoir, which is fenced off but otherwise open. "It looks like a pond, smells like a pond and tastes like a pond," Kulbacki said.

The current system arose when in 1986 the surface water treatment rule, an amendment to the Clean Water Act, forced the Hanover Water Company to bring local drinking water up to a higher standard. The company, which is private and jointly owned by the College and the town of Hanover, chose to meet the new standard in the cheapest way possible: with a disinfectant system.

Chlorine dioxide is generated on-site at a plant and pumped through the water before it goes to homes. This destroys any dangerous biological agents that could be in the water. Sodium chloride is also added for teeth health. More recently, soda ash has been used in the process to so that the water is less corrosive. The system costs $227,000 a year to operate.

However, Kulbacki said, the disinfectant system only deals with "primary issues" -- making the water safe enough to drink. It does not deal with "secondary issues," which is to say "It doesn't look good, doesn't taste good and nobody wants to drink it."

The disinfectant system has other shortcomings as well -- it is the only one of its kind in the region, so there is not much peer or technical support for the staff operating the system. The disinfecting agent oxidizes organic things in the water, adding to its tepidity and its odd taste and smell.

The staff of the Water Company has made various efforts to improve the quality of the water with the current system, but concluded that nothing can be done with the current technology.

As time has gone on and demand for water has increased, problems with the aesthetic quality of the water have worsened.

"This spring has been a particularly bad time," Kulbacki said. "And the public's getting sick of it."

There are a number of reasons that the Water Company has allowed the bad quality of Hanover's water to remain unchanged for so long. One is problems is, ironically, that Hanover water is safe to drink. Because Hanover water meets legal standards for drinking water with its disinfectant system, the NHPUC saw no compelling reason to approve the loan of the money needed to build the new system.

Another is that the company is privately owned. If Hanover Water were taken over by the town, it would have reacted to public outcry much more quickly, Kulbacki said.It would also save enough money by not paying taxes and taking advantage of lower loan rates to pay for a bond that would fund the plant, Kulbacki said.

Public ownership of the Water Company is an issue that is on the table, but could take years to settle. For now, the company is focusing on water quality, but it may become publicly owned at the 2006 town meeting, Kulbacki said.

"It's a shame that this has gone on so long. It's not that the board wouldn't want to change it, it's that it's a different process to go through," Kulbacki said.

It is the energy of the Water Company's current board of directors which has allowed the new plant to go forward. The board is divided evenly between employees of the town employees of the College. It is essentially a volunteer position, and traditionally meets only twice a year to approve the company's budget. Recently, the board has met as many times in the past three years as previous boards have in the past 30 years, Kulbacki said.

Within the stay of the entering class of Dartmouth students, that work should pay off. "I'm looking forward to having this next year over and actually having the plant online," said Kulbacki. "I'm looking forward to that first sip of aesthetically-pleasing water."