BERLIN — The soft-sell of a new municipal water system is officially under way as nearly two dozen potential customers thirsty for information about the $5.5 million project turned out to hear what the engineer who has been working on it for the past six years had to say.
No commitments were made and none were solicited during a session that was pitched as a primer on a water project that has been talked about for more than two decades and seriously pursued since 2007.
On a night when one woman said she would like a free sample before making up her mind and others posed questions about costs and construction schedules, Mark Youngstrom of Otter Creek Engineering said it is possible that water from three capped town-owned wells could be flowing through distribution lines and spurting out facets by this time next year.
“The plan is to be under construction first thing in the spring,” Youngstrom said, suggesting the largest remaining hurdle involves rounding up enough committed customers to make the system proposed for the area around Berlin Four Corners financially viable.
According to Youngstrom, that means entering into formal agreements with property owners who would collectively use roughly 96,500 gallons of water a day, or 386 “equivalent residential units (ERUs).”
That, Youngstrom said, is a fancy name for home and an acknowledgement that many of the potential customers in the proposed service area would use far more water than the average residence.
“When we get to the magic number (386 ERUs) construction starts,” he said, ticking off the benefits a system that would provide a reliable source of potable water, and “full fire protection” – including strategically placed fire hydrants and the ability to accommodate commercial sprinkler systems.
Youngstrom told those attending the first in a series of informational meetings about the water project Wednesday night that the town wasn’t asking them to commit to anything yet, but they should start thinking about whether they want to hook on to the system and be ready to make a decision in the not-too-distant future. He said the time is fast-approaching when those who own homes, commercial property, and even undeveloped land will be asked whether they want to reserve what isn’t an unlimited capacity of water.
“If I could look five years down the road you’re going to reach the capacity of your three wells,” he predicted. “You could sell out the (water) system in a short period of time.”
Though it will take at least 386 ERUs to begin construction, Youngstrom said 500 ERUs is probably the maximum capacity of the current wells.
Tapping out a system that hasn’t yet been built and searching for a supplemental source of water would be a welcome problem, according to Youngstrom, who encouraged those in attendance to seriously consider becoming a customer.
“When somebody finally comes to you and ask you to sign on the dotted line, please sign,” he said.
Asked about price, Youngstrom said rates hadn’t yet been set, but the goal has been and remains to supply water at an annual cost of between $550 and $600 per ERU — a figure he said is around the state average for a well-run municipally owned water system.
Youngstrom did say he would not recommend a price break to persuade high-volume users to hook on to the system.
“Everybody understands fairness, and fairness is everybody pays the same,” he said.
According to Youngstrom, a typical water bill would likely be broken down into three components — flat fee to pay off the bond that will finance construction of the system, a base rate for the ability to use the water, and a per-gallon consumption fee.
Though the drop-dead date hasn’t yet been established, Youngstrom said, those who commit to capacity in advance can avoid the expense of a yet-to-be-established connection fee that will be charged those who choose want to hook on at a later date. However, even those who take advantage of that incentive will be required to cover the cost of tapping into the water line that will stop at their property lines, he said.
With a voter-approved bond issue in-hand, and federal financing for the project locked up, Youngstrom said he is finishing up the final design and working on bid documents in anticipation that recruiting customers won’t be a problem.
According to Youngstrom, the design-work is 60 percent complete, surveys are done, and soil borings have revealed no insurmountable subsurface problems with ledge along the five-mile route of the proposed distribution system.
Youngstrom said that route may yet change based on interest from potential users along Paine Turnpike North, which runs from the Route 62 intersection near the local fire station to the Fisher Road intersection where a new state hospital is now under construction. Adding that area into the project scope would likely require dropping a segment of Comstock Road between Granger Road and Paine Turnpike, he said.
Berlin resident Charlotte Brewer, who hasn’t had water in her house that didn’t come from the well in her yard, said she would be interested in a taste test.
“I’m dying to try it,” she said of the water produced by the town-owned wells.
According to Brewer, her own well has good water pressure, but she isn’t wild about the taste that her husband, Lee, attributes to an elevated salt content that has rendered several wells in the proposed service area undrinkable.
“Ours isn’t bad, but it (the water) does leave rust spots on our stainless steel knives,” he said.
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