$22 million water pipeline plan appears dead

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FILE PHOTO

FILE PHOTO

A plan to build a $22 million water connection from Pawtucket to the East Bay is dead, at least for now, after leery lawmakers raised questions about how much it would cost Bristol County, and what would happen if one of its main users decided to back out of a financing deal.

Last week, the House of Representatives Finance Committee voted to exclude from a state bond question a $15 million line item that, if approved by voters in November, would have helped pay for a new pipeline from Pawtucket, through East Providence and into Bristol County. Part of the cost, about $6 million to as much as 50 percent of the project, would have been borne by the state.

With its Warren treatment plant not operational, Bristol County receives 100 percent of its water from Providence via the cross-bay pipeline, which was completed in the early 1990s. The new connection would have brought the Bristol County Water Authority into compliance with state law that requires a redundant source. Though there are other possible sources — several reservoirs in Rehoboth, and even the possibility of desalinating water from the Kickemuit River — BCWA officials have said that tying in to Pawtucket would be easier and more cost effective than those other options.

While few doubt the need to give the district a second source, finance committee chairman Rep. Ray Gallison of Bristol said he fought to have the money taken off the bond issue because there are too many financing questions, specifically with East Providence’s commitment to the project and what that would mean to BCWA ratepayers.

Though the project has been endorsed by the Barrington and Bristol town councils, Rep. Gallison and Warren Town Council members have grown increasingly concerned in recent months about what would happen if East Providence decided it didn’t want to contribute financially to it. Though East Providence officials first proposed the project several years ago and reached out to BCWA officials to join in, city council members there have so far declined to support it financially.

For months, Rep. Gallison said, he has been asking BCWA executive director Pamela Marchand and others what would happen if East Providence does not ultimately agree to help Bristol County pay off the bonds. Warren officials have been asking the same questions, and getting few answers.

“That was my problem with the whole thing,” Rep. Gallison said. “I don’t know why I could never get an answer. Ask Pam.”

“We’re not going to be left holding the bag on this,” added Warren Town Council member Scott Lial at a May council meeting.

“We’ve been very frustrated with East Providence. It was their project, it was their intention to go forward with it. We’ve been burned by this four letter acronym (BCWA) so many times that I’m more than willing to wait until there’s more action from East Providence. We can’t take the financial risk at this time as a town, period, without guarantees.”

Why has East Providence balked? The state Water Resources Board’s Ken Burke, who appeared before the Warren and East Providence councils in recent months to drum up support for the project, said he believes the city did not have the political will to take on new debt.

East Providence has had water quality and infrastructure issues for years, and earlier this year began a $19 million project to upgrade its internal water supply infrastructure. Adding the pipeline debt might have been too much for the council, he said.

“I believe (the city council) simply didn’t have the tolerance or the appetite for another investment,” he said. “On the other hand, they have to look out for the taxpayer.”

Mr. Burke appeared before the Warren council in May, warning members that the state matching funds might not always be there if the project doesn’t get approval soon. Better to act now, he said.

“The state is offering a 50 percent match,” he said. If the council balks and the project stalls, “I might come back here with a zero percent match and I’ll be compelling the authority (to build the connection). The council can trump the experts and you can dig deeper into your pockets and do what you like.”

On Friday, Mr. Burke said it is clear that he and others who support the project didn’t do enough to convince Warren and East Providence of its importance. He said he will go back to the drawing board and in the coming year will “do some pretty steep education.”

“Believe me, if there’s a better option, we all want it.”

As for Warren’s reluctance to support the connection without clear answers, council president Chris Stanley said that likely will not change without assurances that Bristol County won’t be left holding the entire bag.

“The concerns are still there,” he said Thursday. “We’re still getting bounced around. We’re not getting clear answers. We don’t want to own this completely.”

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5 Comments

  1. GaryM said:

    It’s a little more complicated. To begin, the option of going back to the Mass supplies ignores the unresolved question being that there is no long term agreement for a reliable steady source of raw water from the Anawan reservoir during the dry season. It’s never been struck with owner of the reservoir, the Anawan Club (it’s only a 12 month lease that can be terminated without cause with just a 12 month notice). Are we going to invest millions to upgrade the Mass supplies on a 12 month lease agreement?

    Then there is the obvious question, if East Providence can live with just a single source (the Scituate reservoir), why is a second source for BCWA so critical?

    Is the real issue little more than the state is too broke to fund East Providence should they decide not to pay their share?

    God bless our moral obligation to 38 Studios.

  2. DownTown said:

    Most likely the cross bay pipeline is reaching the time period where failure could be an issue and given it’s nature repair would be pretty difficult without some sort of backup in place. Anyone remember that argument being made decades ago? Of course not, short memory spans. $45 million on something with a limited life span and no backup in place. We only need water to survive so its not a big deal.

    Since they were still spending hundreds of thousands a year on chemicals for the Warren reservoir until at least somewhat recently there is also the question of why that suddenly is not even an option any more.

    Bristol must be upset they can’t just out vote Warren on this because as we know that is how its supposed to work.

  3. GaryM said:

    Downtown

    There is a backup in place. In 2011, BCWA paid for a complete engineering study to prove that in the event of a a cross bay failure, the route through East Providence via the existing Rt 195 pipeline, together with the existing connections already in place between EP and BCWA, could “gravity feed” BCWA for most all of its needs.

    That study was presented to the community as a proof that a workable backup plan was already in place should the cross bay pipeline fail.

    The issue as I understand it is over a “second source” from the Scituate reservoir.

    • Transplant said:

      In 2011, BCWA paid for a complete engineering study to prove that in the event of a a cross bay failure, the route through East Providence via the existing Rt 195 pipeline, together with the existing connections already in place between EP and BCWA, could “gravity feed” BCWA for most all of its needs.

      That might be enough to take a shower. Good luck putting out a fire with it.

    • DownTown said:

      I agree with Transplant that what was described is not a backup plan but if they consider it as such then what as you have asked is the point of spending tens of millions on a second source? There is absolutely no reason to pursue a secondary supply at the cost of tens of millions.

      Its only a matter of when not if the cross bay pipeline will fail. Pipes fail.

      It could be that the cross bay is already leaking enough where they have concerns.

      The East Providence connection was used to augment the reservoir some time ago but it was never used as the primary and ONLY source. When you say ‘most all of its needs’ that leaves a lot out of the equation. As I remember it when the EP connection was used Barrington got that water and Warren and Bristol got the reservoir water. How does an engineering firm come up with an answer ‘most of all its needs’? Are they Lego engineers? Maybe most of all our needs means supplying Barrington as the rest of us drink bottled water for a few months while they repair the cross bay pipe when it eventually fails.

      I have read where Swansea would let us tie into their desal plant. I can’t see where tying into Pawtucket would be cheaper than that.

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