Keeping Water Affordable

The Environmental Protection Agency considers water to be affordable if the cost of water is 2% or less of a household’s income and the combined cost of water and sewer represents 4.5% or less of a household’s income. By that criteria, 11.9% of Americans nationwide currently do not have access to affordable water.

But if that number isn’t shocking enough already, a new study projects it may triple over the next five years due to such factors as climate change, sanitation upgrades, water quality issues, and replacement of aging infrastructure. In a relatively short amount of time, the study projects that 35.6% of Americans could no longer have access to affordable water.

Most of these households of water poverty will be concentrated in places where incomes are low, where the infrastructure is failing, where traditional water sources are no longer available, or where declining populations can no longer support the fixed costs of their water systems.

How affordable is our water here in Groton?

Let’s do the math.

Water usage varies with location and lifestyle, but the average American uses about 100 gallons of household water per day. That’s an average of 30 gallons for outdoor usage (lawn, garden, car washing, swimming pools, etc.); 19 gallons for toilets; 15 gallons for clothes washers; 12 gallons for showers; 11 for faucets; 9 gallons for leaks; and 4 gallons for other uses.

Applying those numbers here in Groton, an average family of four can be expected to use 400 gallons per day, or 36,525 gallons on an average quarterly billing statement. Assuming that 30% of that would be on an irrigation meter, that the household is also on Town sewer, and that there are 748 gallons in a hundred cubic foot billing unit, that’s about 34 units billed at the residential rate and 15 units billed at the new irrigation rate.

An average bill would break down like this:

$141.72 Residential Water
$65.10 Irrigation Water
$373.64 Total Sewer
$5.21 Fire Protection Charge
$13.00 Residential Water Meter
$13.00 Irrigation Water Meter
$611.67 Total

For a more accurate calculation, we’ll make an upward adjustment of $4.80 per quarter because lawns get watered more in the summer than in the winter, and a downward adjustment of $5.21 because fire protection is not a component of household consumption.

Four quarterly bills of $611.26 would yield an annual total of $2,445.04, which would require an income of $54,334 for this combined water and sewer bill to be considered an affordable 4.5% of income for this household of four.  If we remove the sewer and consider only water, four quarterly bills of $232.82 yield an annual total of $931.28, which would require an income of $46,564 to be an affordable 2% of this household’s income.

You may have noticed that my calculation uses the new water rates that went into effect this month. I estimate the water portion in our example quarterly bill is $13.76 higher than it would have been for this same household under the 2009 rates due to a $3 increase in each quarterly meter fee and $7.76 more for this household’s irrigation usage.

Customer experience will vary with specific usage, but the average family of four has experienced a 6.3% increase in their water bill over the course of 8 years, from $219.06 to $232.82, or about 0.8% per year. As long as average household incomes have been increasing in Groton at an average rate of 0.8% or more per year over that time, water bills have been taking up a smaller percentage of our income and have been becoming more affordable over time for the same level of usage.

But you also have the power to make your water bill even more affordable by using less water than the national average of 100 gallons per day per person.

  • A bath takes about 36 gallons of water, while a shower with a standard shower-head takes about 5 gallons per minute, and the same shower with a water-saving shower-head takes only 2 gallons per minute. A shorter shower with a water-saving shower-head will reduce your water usage and save a lot of money.
  • You can save 1 to 2 gallons per minute by turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth. You can get the same rate of savings by turning off the faucet while drying your hands after washing them, or keeping the faucet on for less time before you start shaving.
  • Newer EnergyStar dishwashers use about 6 gallons of water per load, a considerable savings over older models that used up to 16 gallons, and as an added bonus the new dishwashers also use less electricity.
  • When washing dishes by hand, save water by using a faucet with an aerator, by scraping off the food and soaking the dishes in a basin of soapy water before starting, and by not letting the water run between washing every dish.
  • Newer low-flow toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush, while older toilets use 3 to 4 gallons per flush.

The Board of Water Commissioners is working with the Groton Water Department to roll out new meters that will catch leaks much sooner, allowing them to be repaired faster, saving water and money for customers.

The new meters and irrigation rates will encourage compliance with outdoor watering bans and conservation of outdoor water usage.

A capital survey is underway to prioritize capital spending and eliminate the shock of sudden surprises as our needs change or as our infrastructure ages.

And at the same time, we are looking at short- and long-term measures to increase water capacity in an environmentally friendly way, ensuring more resilience to drought conditions in the future.

In a world where water is projected to become less affordable, Groton is doing well and is comparatively well positioned for the future, especially with your continued assistance with ongoing conservation efforts.

Fall 2016 Drought Update


With some much-needed rain, an ongoing outdoor watering ban, creative management of the annual draw-down of Lost Lake, and the help of some industrious beavers downstream of Whitney Pond, the aquifers feeding our public wells are starting to recover.

At least a little.

Although the groundwater is still far below normal, and we are still in a Drought Warning condition, according to the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

On a month to month basis, it’s impossible to say whether the drought will continue or abate, so the Board of Water Commissioners and Groton Water Department are making plans to increase system capacity and better conserve the water we have by:

  • Working with other town agencies and Lakes-area residents to keep as much ground water in the Whitney well recharge area for as long as possible;
  • Rolling out new water meter radio upgrades that will allow the GWD to detect leaks much sooner than ever, preventing wasted water;
  • Upgrading the Whitney wells with variable motors that will be able to extract more water while using less electricity; and
  • Implementing proposed rate changes that may add a fourth usage tier and/or an irrigation rate to encourage conservation of discretionary water usage among the system’s heaviest users.

With these efforts we should be able to weather the storms, or lack thereof.

Forum Tonight

Our region is currently in its second year of an increasingly-impactful drought. Here in Groton, pond and lake levels are down, seasonal streams have gone dry, local ecosystems are under stress, lawns have been brown, and the aquifers that feed our public and private wells have flirted with dangerously low levels. Even with a snowy winter and wet spring, ground and surface water levels will not recover to normal levels by next summer. But if we get more dry weather instead, our water crisis will only lengthen and intensify.

Against this background, the Groton Water Department and Board of Water Commissioners have been looking at options to responsibly increase capacity and add more resilience to the public drinking water supply. We have identified additional water resources that will support the town’s long-term water needs for decades to come, but affordable choices for the short- and medium-term are more limited.

One thing we can do to address upcoming needs is to upgrade the vintage pumps and equipment at the Whitney wells. This outdated machinery, some of which has been in service since the 1980s, falls short of modern electrical codes and safety standards. At this point, staff members are risking their lives during ongoing operations, and a catastrophic failure is only a matter of time.

An overdue upgrade, delayed for multiple budget cycles, is once again up for consideration. Which fits into our capacity discussions because, in addition to improved safety and reliability, a new variable-speed pump would use less electricity and draw more water in a way that’s less stressful on our overtaxed aquifer.

The current pump system operates its two pumps one at a time, always at full force when each is on. The replacement pump system would make it possible to run the two pumps at the same time with less than full force. It’s like we’ve been giving the aquifer an endless series of sharp one-finger jabs to the ribs when we could get a better result with a two-finger tap on the shoulder.

Starting the engineering and design process now, we could have the new pump system online and available for peak demand next summer. But financing this project would require an adjustment to water rates, the first since 2009.

We’ll be soliciting input on from the public tonight, so please let us know your thoughts and concerns.

The meeting agenda is embedded below.

Download (PDF, 228KB)


Opinions expressed are those of Greg R. Fishbone and do not represent any other member of the Board of Water Commissioners.

Per guidance from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, all material on this blog is directed to members of the general public and is not intended to be read by my fellow Board members, nor do I intend for any readers to convey such material directly or indirectly to my fellow Board members.

Criminal Charges in Flint

If you’ve been following the water crisis story out of Flint, Michigan, I’m happy to report that public officials are being held responsible for their lapses in oversight, transparency, communication, and leadership. Together these folks covered up and prolonged a small problem of corrosive water until it became a major public health crisis.

The Detroit Free Press reports:

FLINT — Six state employees were criminally charged [on July 29th] in district court in connection with the Flint water crisis.

Charged are Michigan Department of Health and Human Services workers Nancy Peeler, Corinne Miller and Robert Scott, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees  Liane Shekter-Smith; Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook, according to testimony this morning in Flint’s district court.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Todd Flood, the Royal Oak attorney heading the AG’s investigation, discussed the charges at an 11:30 a.m. news conference at U-M Flint.

“Some people failed to act, others minimized harm done and arrogantly chose to ignore data, some intentionally altered figures … and covered up significant health risks,” he said.

In April, Schuette announced felony charges against two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials and one City of Flint official. At that time, he promised more criminal charges would be forthcoming.

As you might imagine, there is also a civil suit pending against the engineering and consulting firms that enabled Flint to switch from its traditional drinking water source to a more corrosive source, and to forgo protective water treatments that could have kept the public safe.

Revised Water Conservation Ban

The Board of Water Commissioners voted on July 13, 2016, to institute a Revised Mandatory Odd/Even Water Conservation Program through September 30th.

Details are available on the Groton Water Department website, but I’d like to point out the severity of the drought we are in.

Using data from Littleton, 2015 had the lowest annual precipitation for the 35 years for which records are available.

Download (PDF, 10KB)

In that historically dry year, we had 15.70 inches of precipitation.

Download (PDF, 173KB)

With the aquifer already at low levels to start the current year, the first half of 2016 has continued the dry trend.

Download (PDF, 172KB)

Monthly data through the end of June show a total of 13.29 inches so far in 2016, which puts us on a pace to have two extremely dry years back-to-back.

On the demand side, GWD customers used more water in June 2016 than in any previous June since 1999.

Drought Watch, Drought Advisory Issued for Portions of Massachusetts

A press release from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs:

BOSTON – July 8, 2016 – Following four continuous months of unusually dry weather, Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton today declared a Drought Watch for Central and Northeast Massachusetts and a Drought Advisory for Southeast Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley. The declaration was the result of a recommendation issued from a recent meeting of the Drought Management Task Force, comprised of state, federal and local officials, and will remain in effect until water levels return to normal in the affected regions.

“Drought conditions can contribute to lasting agricultural, environmental, and economic impacts, and also raise serious public safety concerns,” said EEA Secretary Matthew Beaton. “This drought declaration is an important tool which will help officials on all levels of government to work together to ensure we take action where necessary, and we advise all residents to conserve water and take increased care with any outdoor burning such as campfires and disposal of smokingmaterials.”

“If these very dry conditions continue through the summer months, the threat of wildfires will become even greater,” said Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Director Kurt Schwartz. “To that end, we remind our residents and visitors to continue to not only conserve water, but also utilize extreme caution when dealing with outdoor burning.”

A Drought Advisory, the second of five levels of drought conditions outlined in the Massachusetts Drought Management Plan, indicates a level of dry conditions that warrants closer tracking by government agencies.

Download (PDF, 1.15MB)

The decline of the state’s rainfall in the Connecticut River Valley, Central, and Northeast Regions since March led to the drought condition, with cumulative precipitation deficits of four to five inches below normal for the months of April, May and June.  For the months of May and June, precipitation was less than 61 percent of normal in the regions under Drought Watch and Advisory. Data from the state’s groundwater, streamflow and reservoir monitoring network show very low levels for the beginning of July. Seventeen streams across the four regions impacted by drought have registered record-low flows for early July.

A Drought Watch, a higher degree of drought, represents extremely low groundwater and streamflow levels resulting from a precipitation deficit of nearly ten inches over the past 12 months, including a lack of snowfall in the winter months.  The declaration of a Drought Watch warrants detailed monitoring of drought conditions, close coordination among state and federal agencies, and technical outreach and assistance for the affected municipalities.

Map of Massachusetts: Massachusetts Drought Status as of July 1, 2016

“The lack of rainfall leaves many public water supplies at reduced levels and puts a strain on water infrastructure as water use increases just as the supply becomes more limited,” said Philip Guerin, Director of Water and Sewer Operations for Worcester Department of Public Works & Parks. “Residents and businesses need to heed water use restrictions and take steps to fix leaks and limit non-critical water use to assure adequate supplies for health and safety in the coming months.”

Task Force officials noted that while some smaller reservoir systems in Drought Advisory areas are low for this time of year, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) supply system is well above any drought conditions within its individual plan. Additionally, public water suppliers around the state have issued conservation measures in response to the dry conditions.

The declaration of a Drought Advisory and Drought Warning requires the Drought Management Task Force to meet on a regular basis to more closely assess conditions across the state, coordinate dissemination of information to the public, and help state, federal and local agencies prepare any responses that may be needed in the future. The Task Force will next meet in August.