Hydro-freeze: new housing, commercial projects on hold during water department study

Abington and Rockland’s water commissioners have instituted a “freeze” on all new requests for water pending the outcome of a system-wide capacity and storage study.

The Abington/Rockland Joint Water Works system has been under growing stress from increased development in the two towns, people spending more time at home during to the pandemic, and lingering drought conditions. 

H2Olson Engineering will conduct a “supply and demand study” to help the commissioners and their staff better understand the system’s current status and needs. The study is expected to take three to six months to complete. Depending on the findings, water commissioners could then vote to ask the state for a formal moratorium.

The freeze, which commissioners said is legally different than a moratorium, applies to any residential or commercial project that has not yet formally received an allotment of water from the joint water works.

Water works Superintendent Joseph LaPointe said upwards of 50,000 gallons of water per day has been reserved for projects not yet built. The temporary freeze will not apply to those projects, which includes a 144-unit affordable housing development off Plymouth Street, and multiple housing projects in Rockland.

“Some of the projects date back to 2011,” LaPointe told the board. 

In cases where commercial properties are being taken over by more water-intensive uses, LaPointe said they’d be considered on a case-by-case basis.  

The water system is permitted by the state to withdraw an average of 2.67 million gallons per day from its reservoirs and well fields. Water withdrawal limits are based on a range of factors, including how much water can be pumped out of watersheds without causing ecological harm. According to LaPointe, the system currently withdraws between 2.3 and 2.5 million gallons per day.

Even if the study finds that the department is under its withdrawal limits, the system is still struggling to keep up with increased demand. Reservoir levels remain low due to the drought, LaPointe said. In addition, with more people now working from home due to the pandemic, daytime water demand has increased significantly, making it difficult for clear wells and water tanks to refill.  

Water department customers in 2020 consumed 53 million gallons of water more than the previous year, LaPointe said.

News of the freeze is being applauded by some who have been critical of Abington’s rate of development. 

“We don’t have the water to support the population. It’s overuse,” said Karen Bowen, a Plymouth Street resident. “Some will think me selfish, but it’s the current residents who should be the ones to have an ample water supply.”

[DISCLOSURE: The author is a member of the Abington Planning Board]

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